What are you doing right now? Have you taken any risks lately? When was the last time you were really scared?
In the summer of 2012, Michael Patrick F. Smith read an article in the Men’s Journal about the Bakken Oil Fields in North Dakota. At the time, he was working as a white collar worker in lower Manhattan, living in Brooklyn, indulging in the drug and alcohol-soaked bacchanalia of “post-teen” life accessible to any white man regularly employed in New York City. He was, it shouldn’t be a surprise, was bored. So he sublet the apartment, bought a Chevy and went to the site of the biggest oil boom in a century.
“The Good Hand” is partly a meditation on how essential oil is to our lives, but it’s just as much about the horrible job of extracting this oil. Why the Bakken? “Advances in drilling technology – horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing – have transformed this massive, though previously unrecoverable, shale deposit into a river of fresh raw grease.” The influx of workers was like a “modern grape of wrath,” Smith writes. “Desperate for corps to work on rigs,” he explains, “North Dakota oil companies have gained a reputation for offering good pay, perks, signing bonuses, per diems and accommodation for any guy who could make the trip to town and swing a hammer when he arrived. Smith comes up with $ 3,000 in cash and $ 2,500 in credit. Can he swing a hammer?
This book could have been as unsurprising as the privileged life left by Smith. Man is bored, does difficult things, emerges with lessons. What makes the subject matter of Smith’s book is the wealth of world-building details, as well as the journey through physical and psychological pain.
The first thing Smith needs to do is find accommodation – a surprising hurdle from the start. Rents in northwestern North Dakota are higher than those in Manhattan. Then he has to find a job. In a library, “white men with big bones sit alone at tables scattered like solitary rhinos, sifting through online applications and forms for research and pecking. Then he must survive. “A few years of friendly and no-questions-asked recruiting by the oil companies has left Williston, North Dakota, with the highest concentration of rapists and child molesters in the world.”
After spending 10 nights in his Chevy, Smith locates a rental mattress on the floor of a flophouse. Upstairs live a woman and her son, both suffering from Tourette’s syndrome. Jamaicans in another room are hiding from the racism that plagues the camp. A team of drunks and psychopaths share the cramped townhouse. Fighting is common. “I lived among them like a friendly ghost,” says Smith, with a typically poetic understatement. Life on the flop is like prison – “kill time, watch TV, maybe read, try not to let other people upset you too much.” So you can go back to sleep. So you can wake up. So you can get back to work. “
Work: the simplicity of getting it and then trying not to die if you are wrong. Or kill someone else. Or both. Smith’s triumph in obtaining oil employment is fleeting. The work is really so hard and so dangerous. “Even after lunch,” he writes, “my stomach is empty and alert as if, instead of a ham sandwich, I had swallowed an exclamation mark.
There are approximately 600 chapters in this book. All of them are quite short. They jump chronologically with amazing success. From the first time Smith put hooks and chains under heavy equipment to his sad attempts to make friends, from his first glimmers of self-doubt to his agonies at what was I thinking, which takes us away, these are images torn off. “There Will Be Blood” and replanted in striking prose.
“I have no way of describing it but like a big metal thing,He writes about the oil well. “He is surrounded by trucks and cranes and men wearing helmets and coveralls. I feel like I’m looking at a dangerous book written in another language. This foreign language becomes its own subject. “Oil rigs are called rigs because they are up and down,” he writes. “Trucks are also called platforms. Rigging is a verb as well as a noun. … Each piece of rigging is rigged by rigging. “
It takes almost 100 pages to get an idea of who Smith is. Where does his pain, his determination, his original writing style come from? It turns out that Smith was an actor, playwright, and musician and even performed serious concerts, opening for legendary folkie Ramblin ‘Jack Elliott.
Yet he is also like all the other boom boys. Those who strike up conversations with what Smith calls the Williston Hello: “What kind of work do you do? Dude, my dad whipped my ass! Her own story fits perfectly and becomes the real heart of the book. “My father threatened to kill me, my mother and all my siblings,” he wrote. “And like a tree growing on the side of a steep mountain, I had conformed to that certain brutality in order to survive.
So what do we get from nine months in Bakken, instead of predictable lessons learned? Smith doesn’t come away with what he hoped to win, but he doesn’t lose any limbs. Neither does he form many lasting friendships – due in part to horrific stroke of bad luck – nor any life-useful work experience in the East. “Did I really just give up everything I had built in my life and walk 2,000 miles to this desolate patch of land to find a man to mistreat me?”
There’s a lot of abuse, but one thing’s for sure: Smith finds the energy, years later, to write a sprawling howl of rage and pain across the page. “The Good Hand” is a rambling honky-tonk from a book, with the soul of a songwriter and the pain of a poor white boy who grew up tough. It’s big and it’s pretty and it’s amazing.
Deuel is the author of “Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East”.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.