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As he did so masterfully in The jungle, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Upton Sinclair interweaves social criticism with human tragedy to create an unforgettable portrait of Southern California's early oil industry. Enraged by the oil scandals of the Harding administration in the 1920s, Sinclair tells a gripping tale of avarice, corruption, and class warfare, featuring a cavalcade of characters, including senators, oil magnates, Hollywood film starlets, and a crusading evangelist. Sinclair's glorious 1927 epic endures as one of our most powerful American novels of social injustice.… (mehr)
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I probably like this book a little less than I should have because I was hoping for another book as gripping as "The Jungle". Both are early 20th Century novels, one exposing the unfair treatment of workers and the horrors of the meat industry at that time, and this one lightly touching on labor vs. big business. But this book might give some insights into what life might have been like in the 1910's through 1920's, and gets into the birth of Communism, the Teapot Dome Scandal, unions, wildcating, etc., but the main characters weren't people I could relate with. ( )
  rsutto22 | Jul 15, 2021 |
Wonderfully written, great message, and fun story. Has all the elements a classic work of fiction should have. ( )
  Russell_Krupen | Jul 11, 2021 |
The Jungle will always be Sinclair's most acclaimed work, and rightly so given its impact, but I believe that Oil! has just as much relevance to contemporary life, if not more so, and deserves to be as well-known as its more venerable sibling even if it did not spur the same reforms of the oil industry that The Jungle did for food preparation and handling. I was spurred to read it after a rewatch of Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, and the novel is so different from, and more complex than, the film adaptation that they probably should not be considered strictly related. Anderson's film is a small, close study, with Daniel Day-Lewis' oil tycoon patriarch a cryptic, amoral madman, whereas Sinclair's sprawling epic of ambition and capitalism has the son as its vastly subtler and more complex protagonist, arguing for and against several political philosophies against the backdrop of World War 1, the Teapot Dome scandal, evangelical religious revivalism, the film industry, and the generally explosive growth of Southern California. As always with books vs movie questions, one should decide how much the snappier running time and enhanced aesthetic experience of a film outweighs the greater richness and depth of a novel, but there is so much great stuff in Oil! that isn't the film that it deserves to be experienced as its own masterwork, particularly its exploration of how internal leftist debates interact with public opinion and the forces of big business.

In fairness to Anderson, ones of Sinclair's weaknesses as an author is that it can be difficult to tell his digressions from his details, which is probably why the movie really only uses the plot from about the first 100 pages and then does its own thing. The very first chapter is a lengthy, floridly overwritten dramatization of J. Arnold Ross Sr. and Jr. driving into California to investigate some oil leases, but the story picks up rapidly and Senior, a small-time oilman, begins gradually making it big through smart investments and some cunning. He's a tough negotiator, and not averse to greasing the palms of public officials when necessary, but he's not at all like his movie depiction; he's always fair to his workers and generally supportive though skeptical of his son's ideological meanderings. His son, nicknamed Bunny, is the real main character, and over the course of the book he loyally defends his father's line of work to the various leftists and socialists he encounters as he gets continually more and more involved in the world of radical politics, especially after he meets Paul Watkins, a tough-minded worker, and his brother Eli, a religious charlatan (both played by Paul Dano in the movie). Like any good class traitor, Bunny feels guilty about the increasing wealth and privilege he accumulates as his father's business continues to expand, but that doesn't stop him from dating actresses and "reluctantly" enjoying the F. Scott Fitzgerald high society lifestyle while at the same time attempting to use his wealth for good. Eventually the brutal repression of socialists and anarchists after World War 1 in the Palmer Raids leads to Paul's being beaten to death at the hands of the authorities, and the novel ends with a solemn resignation at the unstoppable power of the impersonal capitalist juggernaut.

What's interesting is that the novel is for the most part quite nuanced and almost sympathetic in its explorations of industry and power. The Jungle, written 20 years before, was much more stridently anti-capitalist, but Oil! portrays the the struggle between large businesses and small for market share with real enthusiasm, and Sinclair openly admires the mix of guile, dedication, and vision it takes for an entrepreneur to grow from a small operator to a major political player. Ross and his operation in "Beach City" is an only barely fictionalized depiction of the real-life Edward Doheny's development of Huntington Beach in Orange County, and Sinclair's melancholy illustration of all levels of government as corrupt, feckless, and reactionary fits into a long tradition of California-as-American-microcosm, like in Chinatown, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, etc. At various points Bunny attempts to stand up to Vernon Roscoe, his father's much more ruthless business partner and the bad cop of capitalism to his father's good cop, and Roscoe's powerful defenses of the inexorable logic of capitalism are right in line with the famous monologues in Wall Street, Other People's Money, etc. By the end of the book the triumph of capitalism is taken as practically unavoidable, but at many points the characters are given room to portray this as an actual good thing, which Sinclair did not do in The Jungle. The oil industry has many casualties over the course of the novel, but Sinclair leaves it up to the reader to picture what if anything would change under a socialist system. With the hindsight of a hundred years, we can see that real-life socialist countries don't seem to have discovered a clearly superior method for resource extraction, but that doesn't make the imperial cruelty of the oil barons at the incredibly modest demands of the workers for simple wage increases any easier to swallow.

It's notable that all of the radicals Bunny encounters are well-meaning but ultimately doomed, whether by pointless factionalism, naivete, or government hostility via strike-breaking and state-sanctioned brutality. Sinclair spends a good deal of time on how the cannibalistic disputes between the various flavors of socialists, communists, anarchists, and leftists were unavoidable but ultimately meaningless, as the real powers operated with impunity on a plane far above them, and one does not have to think very hard to see how the equivalent forces of oligarchy ensure that the same system operates today. I was reminded of Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle, set a decade later, and how how liberal reformers in the FDR administration defused much of this kind of radical pressure with pro-union policy as part of the New Deal, but Sinclair can't bring himself to write anything close to the redemptive ending that Steinbeck was so fond of, and Paul's ultimate death at the hands of an anti-union goon squad is nothing but a fatalistic reminder of the power of unchecked greed. Even worse, Eli is able to cynically use his brother's death to advance his immense evangelist movement, making one long for the violent comeuppance Anderson gave him in the film. And even though Bunny and his new wife Rachel dedicate his inheritance to establishing institutions of reform, Sinclair doesn't have any illusions that they will matter greatly; all of the antagonists (and even Bunny's father) not only escape any consequences for their corruption in the Teapot Dome scandal, they successfully install Coolidge as president in a landslide.

Since this is historical fiction, it's easy to take the gloomy irrelevance of the American socialist movement as inevitable (though it is curious that Eugene Debs' surprisingly successful campaigns for president go unmentioned during the discussions about the viability of electoralism), I think the book raises a lot of excellent questions about how leftists should proceed when history is in motion. It goes without saying that none of the warmongering, nativist, plutocratic, petroleum-obsessed, reactionary impulses on display in the novel have left the American political landscape, yet it remains to be seen whether the current resurgence of socialism in the US is authentic or permanent. Oil! vastly improves on There Will Be Blood in its understand of how systems are far more powerful than individual men and women, and though Sinclair's own experience with electoral politics - he ran for governor of California less than a decade after Oil! was published and was crushed - does not provide a particularly inspiring example of how to challenge entrenched interests, perhaps now that even greater challenges like climate change are no longer quite so ignorable, a politics of kindness will be more successful now than it was back in his era. ( )
  aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
Read it as though Sinclair was ambivalent to Communism and you get a nuanced look at a naïf; Dad becomes the tragic hero. ( )
  st3t | Aug 3, 2020 |
on line library archive org. long riveting read about the start up of US oil industry at turn of 20 century. Moving depictions and explanations of social injustice, freedoms surpassed, labour activists, and the sicknesses of capitalism.
Last chapters described Bunny hero attempts to start a labour college - under canvas- based on freedom and research. good read
  MarilynKinnon | Jul 4, 2020 |
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The road ran, smooth and flawless, precisely fourteen feet wide, the edges trimmed as if by shears, a ribbon of grey concrete, rolled out over the valley by a giant hand.
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This work was written by Upton Sinclair, not Sinclair Lewis.  If this is your copy, you might want to correct the author to have it associate correctly with the other copies of this work.  Thank you.
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As he did so masterfully in The jungle, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Upton Sinclair interweaves social criticism with human tragedy to create an unforgettable portrait of Southern California's early oil industry. Enraged by the oil scandals of the Harding administration in the 1920s, Sinclair tells a gripping tale of avarice, corruption, and class warfare, featuring a cavalcade of characters, including senators, oil magnates, Hollywood film starlets, and a crusading evangelist. Sinclair's glorious 1927 epic endures as one of our most powerful American novels of social injustice.

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