Oil! is a brilliantly constructed satire or exposé of the oil industry in the early part of the 20th century, with many parallels with recent history, sadly. Sinclair makes each character realistic and flawed. He has great insight into people and how they muck things up because they’re too soft, too greedy, too idealistic, too divisive, etc.
The main relationship is between Bunny, who is a young teenager, and his father, an oil man who’s driven to make more and more money and to give his son a good life. The father feels that school doesn’t teach much of importance so when Bunny’s middle school age, he travels around with his father learning how things are done. (When there’s time a tutor comes to get the boy, who eventually does go to high school and college, up to speed on the three R’s.) The father is a self-made man who can sincerely justify any short cut in business. He reminded me of the first Richard Daley, since he was more street smart than book smart and really often came across as clueless about how things should be done.
Bunny, is a refined, nice boy, who attracts some interesting friends. There’s Paul a boy about his age, who’s run away from home and trying to escape a father who’s a religious fanatic, while earning money for his siblings’ food. There are Socialist friends at college and a movie starlet girlfriend. Since he’s a sympathetic person, Bunny becomes associated with people from all walks of life, often on very different sides of the era’s burning issues. He uses the money his father earned from fields fleeced from families like Paul’s to pay Paul’s bail when his friend cum hero is arrested by instigators his father’s associates hired to put an end to unionizing. There are many shades of gray though it’s clear some are far darker than others to Sinclair.
Through this story which follows Bunny as he matures, Sinclair skewers business, government, religion, Socialism, academia, college sports, the movie industry, well just about every institution in the society with the exception of the food industry, which he tackled previously in the 1903 novel The Jungle.
There are many history lessons in this novel as Dad is one of the men who funded or bought Harding’s way to the White House.
This book is action-packed and witty. It reads fast, but it’s no longer in print, even though it was the inspiration for the film There Will be Blood. It should be at your library though.