Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Oil!, by Upton Sinclair

One-line summary: A sensationalistic saga of oil and politics in 1920s Southern California.


Goodreads: Average: 3.57. Mode: 4 stars.
Amazon: Average: 4.0. Mode: 5 stars.

In Oil! Upton Sinclair fashioned a novel out of the oil scandals of the Harding administration, providing in the process a detailed picture of the development of the oil industry in Southern California. Bribery of public officials, class warfare, and international rivalry over oil production are the context for Sinclair's story of a genial independent oil developer and his son, whose sympathy with the oilfield workers and socialist organizers fuels a running debate with his father. Senators, small investors, oil magnates, a Hollywood film star, and a crusading evangelist people the pages of this lively novel.

Most everyone knows who Upton Sinclair is (at least in the U.S.), because we all learn in elementary school that his most famous book, The Jungle, is responsible for the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the creation of the FDA, as well as turning millions of Americans into vegetarians. (President Teddy Roosevelt, so goes the popular mythology, read The Jungle and was so disgusted that he immediately resolved to clean up the meatpacking industry.)

The reality of course, was a little more complicated. For starters, Upton Sinclair was a socialist -- the real deal, not a "anyone-to-the-left-of-Ronald-Reagan" socialist as defined by FOX News. (For more on what The Jungle was really about, I highly recommend the humorous but informative article 6 Books Everyone (Including Your English Teacher) Got Wrong from that flagship of literary journalism,

(Another interesting factoid which I didn't even know until I read the above Wikipedia article: Robert A. Heinlein ran as a state legislator on Sinclair's End Poverty in California platform while Sinclair was running for Governor. Hah! That's something to stick in the face of the next lolbertarian Heinlein fanboy who wanks about bootstraps and rugged individualism.)

So anyhoo, yes, Upton Sinclair was a muckraker and a great big pinko.

It shows in his books, but Oil! was still surprisingly entertaining for all that it was also clearly a platform for his political views. Upton Sinclair is a sort of reverse Ayn Rand -- not only were his politics the opposite of hers, so was his plot-to-political screed ratio. Also, while his characters are sometimes a little flat and archetypal, they are at least believable human beings.

Oil! is about the Southern California oil business in the 1920s. Sinclair turns his gimlet eye on the oil industry, California real estate, the birth of radio evangelism, Hollywood, and local, state, and national politics, and while it's informative and an interesting study of the period, it's also scary how little has changed. There's very little that Sinclair describes that wouldn't be believable today.

While Sinclair's politics permeate the book -- he is relentlessly satirical when describing the machinations of capitalist industry and its control over democracy, and unfailingly sympathetic to the working class characters -- it's more even-handed than one might expect. The central narrative is that of James Arnold Ross, an independent oilman, and his son, James Arnold "Bunny" Ross, Jr. Despite being representative of everything that's bad in Sinclair's worldview, he paints Ross Sr. in a sympathetic light -- he's basically a decent man, but he's a pragmatic capitalist who takes the world as it is. But everything he does he does for his son, and it's Bunny, the young "oil prince," who fights a battle between his upbringing and his conscience throughout the book, benefiting from the wealth and privilege of his background but becoming increasingly sympathetic to the socialist cause.

Bunny was actually one of the most annoying parts of the book for me, because I got sick of his wishy-washiness. He feels so sorry for the poor downtrodden workers! And yet, he lives a life of ease and luxury because of them! Is it wrong for him to accept his father's money and then use it to work against his father's interests? How can he be loyal to his father and to the socialist cause? This gets tiresome, but it never ends -- Bunny never really does get off that fence. Even the other characters get sick of his angsty indecisiveness.

Sinclair writes in a sardonic, expository style that's often funny, and he keeps things moving right along while populating the book with a wide variety of characters from all walks of life. Amazingly enough, he makes almost all of them sympathetic

Sinclair was a muckraker but he did his research and he got his facts (mostly) right. As he notes in the introduction, everything that happens in this book was real -- he just changed the names and combined some characters and events while splitting others.

His biggest blind spot, of course, was his socialism. He gives the capitalist argument fair play, and he (unlike most critics) differentiates between socialism and communism and points out the internal divisions in both camps along right-left and other axes. But he was writing in the 1920s, when socialism was still an actual force in American politics, and much-feared (as opposed to now, when socialism is all but nonexistent in American politics no matter what the Tea Partiers say). Thus, the Bolsheviks in particular get very sympathetic treatment. All of his socialist characters speak glowingly of the Russian revolution, and dismiss horror stories as White Russian or capitalist propaganda. The atrocities that occurred under the Czar are detailed, as are the atrocities visited upon the Russian "workers revolution" by Western bankers in their attempts to suppress the Bolsheviks.

With hindsight, of course, we know that Sinclair was wrong, at least about the worker's paradise that was communist Russia, and that the Soviet Union did in fact suck, a lot. The atrocities he describes were real, but he either did not foresee or chose not to what would happen when Stalin took power in 1924. But it's not fair to judge Oil! without considering the time when it was written, between two World Wars and just before the start of the Great Depression. Sinclair lived another forty years, and his politics evolved, as did the world. He eventually got out of politics, but he kept writing, and he remained a socialist would-be reformer.

So, read this book because of the author's political leanings, not in spite of them. Even if you're very far from Upton Sinclair on the political spectrum, it's interesting to see the world viewed through his lens. He wrote clearly and there's an entertaining story here, and plenty of colorful characters; it's a wonderful snapshot of its time.

There Will Be Blood

The 2007 movie There Will Be Blood was loosely based on Oil!. Very loosely. The characters are only roughly similar and the plot even less so.

There Will Be Blood is a great movie. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it. (Yes, the movie is actually better than the book.) The scene in TWBB where Bunny is deafened by an oil rig explosion doesn't happen at all in Sinclair's novel, and from that point onward, the movie and the book go off in completely different directions and the stories and characters bear no resemblance to one another.

Sadly, Daniel Day-Lewis's glorious, demonic I Drink Your Milkshake! scene is also not in the book.

What the negative reviewers say

Most of the reviewers read the book after seeing There Will Be Blood, like I did. Many of them were disappointed.

Since this is a book that was written in 1927, of course there are a lot of readers who found the style and the time period uninteresting. Since Oil! does spend so much time describing the oil industry and political wrangling in 1920s California, many readers found this tedious. And of course there are the predictable "This is socialist propaganda!" reviews.

Verdict: It's a product of its time and its author, but still a surprisingly good read. If you're interested in the setting and time period, definitely read it. But the movie is better.
Tags: books, history, movies, reviews, toxic bucket of crazy, upton sinclair

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