Upton Sinclair!

Penguin Books used the success of “There Will Be Blood” to reissue the 1927 novel upon which the movie was looselylooselylooselyloosely based, Upton Sinclair’s “Oil!” And surprise…It’s a very good book.

Given Sinclair’s politics, we expected a mixture of screed, agitprop and socialist realism. In some passages, it is (especially the heavy-handed ending). But Sinclair also essays a clever satire* of the goings-on of the 1920s, with sly, fictionalized descriptions of the Teapot Dome Scandal, Aimee Semple Mcpherson, Hollywood socialites, spiritualism, college athletics, labor and radical politics, and of course, the oil industry. Sinclair’s willingness to take shots at all sides and his accurate eye for descriptive detail make it an entertaining read. For example:

With these young Socialists, as with the old ones, it was right wing versus left; everybody argued tactics, and got tremendously excited. The Communists also had an organization, the Young Workers’ League, and the two rivals carried on sniping operations; sometimes they held formal debates, and young people would jump and down in their seats and carry on the controversy in their homes and working places for weeks afterwards. It was Moscow versus Amsterdam, the Third International versus the Second, the “reds” against the “pinks,” as the mild Socialists were known.

If anything, it reminds us of Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” the best satire of the ’80s, with the early California oil industry taking the role of investment banking.

* Now, it’s also possible that Sinclair was trying to tell the story straight and his writing now appears humorous just because sensibilities have changed. Don’t think so, but it’s possible.

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