Oil! by Upton Sinclair

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s a little hard for me to fathom how this book “inspired” the movie There Will Be Blood. The film narrative is dark and Daniel Day-Lewis’s character is brooding, hateful and intense. Daniel Plainview’s poisonous temperament and greed couldn’t be farther from J. Arnold Ross, the optimistic, no-nonsense oil man in the book, father of Bunny Ross, his idealist “red” heir. The novel is really a vindictive account of president Harding’s corrupt government, the penetration of Bolshevism in the US with its consequent “red” paranoia. The persecutions of Socialist ideologies and the hunting down of Communist cells are well portrayed. The book also ponders deep philosophical questions on the nature of labor and the capitalist order. It doesn’t seem quite clear what is the author’s resolution: is a dictatorship of the proletariat an effective and natural system of governance or is capitalism more akin to the logical order of things? Should workers rule, even if unskilled, or should society mimic nature in its “survival of the fittest”? Vernon Roscoe, the unscrupulous associate of “Dad”, put it grimly and convincingly when he said to Bunny that if smart workers had what it takes to become successful oil operators they would, but those who didn’t had to work; there is no way around that equation, and it really seems rational.

I didn’t like the book’s ending; it felt hurried and not well thought out. And Bunny’s decision to start a colony… well that was just plain ridiculous and with that I lost all my respect for that character, which had been toughening up very gradually (and erratically) chapter by chapter. Mr. Sinclair would, of course, disagree, as he himself used his royalties from The Jungle to found one such utopia… with the calamitous results social experiments like that usually entail.

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