- The Good: A historically epic portrait of society and politics
- The Bad: Long, problematic, and eventually dogmatic
- The Literary: Beautiful prose; steeped in history; an American classic
James Arnold Ross, Jr., aka Bunny, adores his father, a self-made, highly pragmatic oil developer. They drive through Southern California and find a new plot to drill on the Watkins’ family goat ranch, where Bunny befriends the Watkins children, particularly Ruth and Paul. When drilling begins, Bunny begins to realize he doesn’t entirely agree with his fathers’ business methods, ultimately growing to feel torn between his loyalty to his father and the working class men.
This American classic novel is a historical epic, featuring themes of family, class inequality, greed, the rise to power, and the exploration of several political philosophies. The coming-of-age of an idealistic young oil prince in the 1920s is set against the harsh backdrops of the American oil industry and the Harding administration.
I love this novel for many reasons, but let’s start with the prose and structure. Sinclair paints pictures with his words, capturing a bygone era with both a reverent nostalgia for simpler times, as well as a timelessness that makes the story resonate with today’s people and world-stage politics. Bunny as a POV character is a blank slate, through whom the reader gets to explore and understand his duty to his father and legacy, his fellow mankind, and his own happiness.
Bunny’s father, J. Arnold Ross, stands in opposition to Bunny’s best friend Paul Watkins as symbols of capitalism and communism, respectively. Both are painted as sympathetic characters who do what is necessary for their goals. Having pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, J. Arnold Ross knows how the world works and doesn’t hesitate to grease a few palms, push out the little guy, or even sway an election in the interest of his business. As a teenager, Paul Watkins supported the oil field workers, and, after being drafted in WWI, he remained in Siberia to fight the Bolsheviks before returning home preaching communism.
Speaking of preaching, Paul’s brother, Eli, is a force in his own right, claiming to have received the Third Revelation when he was just a teenager. As a preacher, he and his flock speak in tongues and receive holy convulsions until it makes Eli’s financial backers uncomfortable. As J. Arnold Ross and Paul and Eli Watkins rise to power in their own circles, they each make sacrifices and choices for their movements that seem less than moral.
Bunny has many romantic adventures over his young life, mostly in high society, being drawn to strong women, including a successful Hollywood actress. Even though each of the women in the novel eventually becomes a love interest, I like that each has her own motivations and interests. Bunny is always looking for someone to guide him, even in his partner. Although he never quite “figures out women”, and he is often the pursued instead of the pursuer, he makes a final (telling) choice in his spouse.
From a historical perspective, this book was written in the context of the Harding administration’s Teapot Dome Scandal and with some foresight into the upcoming second world war. With hindsight, the socialism versus communism debate can feel like Stalinist propaganda, so it’s interesting to see the early idealism of these movements. In addition, American was experiencing an industrial boom thanks to oil, and I can’t help but think of the parallels to the technology boom we are experiencing a century later.
This book isn’t perfect. It lags in the middle. Bunny is a soft POV. It’s easy to see holes in the political arguments in hindsight. Treatment of women and minorities, while progressive for the time, is still problematic. But I’ve never read anything like this before, and fully expect it to stay with me for a long time.
Highly recommended as an American classic!