February 14, 2008


Oil! By Upton Sinclair. Penguin. $15.

      Penguin has reissued Upton Sinclair’s sprawling 80-year-old muckraking book about the California oil industry as a 550-page paperback for the good and sufficient reason that the well-reviewed film There Will Be Blood was based on part of the book – so maybe fans of the movie will want to know more. If they do, they will find themselves by turns enthralled and appalled both by Sinclair’s subject matter and by his writing style and political convictions.

      Sinclair is best known for The Jungle, a dreary and unendingly bleak exposé of the meatpacking industry whose publication led to substantial reforms. It is an important book, but far from an easy one to read: Sinclair is given to repetition upon repetition, to black-and-white painting of the evils of capitalism and the marvels of socialism, and to a style that can charitably be described as heavy-handed. On all those bases, Oil! (whose original subtitle was used as the name of the new movie) is identifiably Sinclair’s – but it is in some ways an easier book to read, and it is certainly a richer experience (after you slog all the way through it) than the film.

      The story was loosely inspired by the 1923 Teapot Dome scandal that occurred during Warren Harding’s administration and was revealed only after Harding’s death: corrupt officials close to Harding were profiting hugely by selling off government oil reserves in Wyoming. Sinclair sets his story in California, where Harding died, and focuses it on Daniel Plainview and his son, John, known as Bunny (a nickname that is probably intended to be symbolic but that tends just to seem silly). Daniel buys land near the California-Mexico border to take advantage of the migration patterns of the time, but after his death, Bunny strikes oil on the land, and Big Oil (as it existed at the time) finds out and starts buying up everything nearby. Bunny cannot be bought off by Big Oil, and this creates predictable problems. In addition, there is the separate but related story of the region’s growing population and its fascination with religious revivalism in the person of a preacher named Eli Sunday, to whom Bunny becomes close.

      This bare outline shows only a little of the rich tapestry that, in the hands of a more skillful stylist, could have resulted in a fast-paced and utterly fascinating period piece (Nathanael West would have handled the story superbly and in much less space). But Sinclair is interested first and foremost in exposing the evils of capitalism, so his characters tend to be types and his sentences go on and on and on; as a result, even when he deals with issues that continue to resonate today, he does so in dated and dull prose: “Bunny went back to Southern Pacific, and just as he was finishing his year’s work, the convention of the Republican party met in Chicago, a thousand delegates and as many alternates, and as many newspaper correspondents and special writers, to tell the world about this mighty historic event.” Sinclair has a good ear for Jazz Age slang, and his descriptions of some of the workings of the early movie industry are historically interesting and occasionally amusing, as when he imagines a tabloid headline reading, “Star Races Nude Oil Red!” But the dialogue is hopelessly dated: “’It was a reaction from her life with her husband; he was a profligate, and so she’s a miser.’” And although readers will certainly care about Bunny and certainly come to despise the forces arrayed against him, the manipulative nature of Sinclair’s narrative in the service of his political views ends up making Oil! seem less a novel than a very lengthy tract. Still, there are pockets of excitement here, and plots and subplots far beyond what was (or could be) shown on a movie screen in a limited time frame. So this new edition of Oil! does have the potential to fascinate some moviegoers – although it is unlikely to result in their developing substantial enthusiasm for Sinclair’s work in general.

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