And at what stage of life shall a boy say to his father, your way of life is wrong and you must let me take charge of it?
A bildungroman, Oil! unfolds through the eyes of Bunny whom we meet for the first time as he travels with his father, James Arnold Ross, to see a property which might produce oil. From then on, his father grows rich as he acquires more and more oil wells and Bunny acquires a social conscience as he befriends a waif, Paul Watkins. Watkins, tutored by a free thinker and later a soldier in WWI who also spends time in Siberia and is later a labourer and a communist, makes a deep impact on Bunny with his philosophy of life. This inevitably leads to clashes with his father and the best part of the book is that points are debated. It is not merely ruthless, blood-suckers industrialists vs hungry, downtrodden labourers or devoted communists vs debauched capitalists. There are debates and discussions and the father (who is in many ways a very decent character) forcefully proves his own point of view too. There is even a debate regarding socialism vis a vis communism and the socialist is dismissive of the methods employed by the communists.
In his march towards adulthood, Bunny also falls in and out of love with socialites and Hollywood starlets (and this gives Sinclair the perfect opportunity to depict the Roaring Twenties) . In fact, wikipedia tells me that a sex scene in a motel so offended sensibilities that it was banned in Boston.. Sinclair’s publisher printed 150 copies of a “fig-leaf edition” with the offending nine pages blacked out. Sinclair protested the banning and hoped to bring an obscenity case to trial. He did not do so, but the controversy helped make the book a bestseller. So obviously controversy always sells.
This is my third Sinclair after King Coal, and Jungle and though I admire his devotion to depict the ills of this world, his novels tend to get didactic in parts. At 527 pages, this was way too long and eventually I just wanted it to end. However, I am still interested to read more of him, especially Boston, which I have heard is based on a real-life incident.
First Line: 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.
Author: Upton Sinclair
Publishing details: London: T. Werner, Laurie Ltd., 1936.
First Published: 1927
Trivia: The 2007 movie, There Will Be Blood, is loosely based on the book.
Other books read of the same author: The Jungle, and King Coal