Guest Observation: Upton Sinclair

oil.jpgNeeding to have something in my hands to read the other day, I spotted a book of Thom’s (I think): “Oil!” by Upton Sinclair. It’s a Penguin edition with Daniel Day-Lewis’s picture on the front, because “There Will Be Blood” is “loosely based” on the novel.  

I’ve barely read anything by Sinclair; I have dim memories of “The Jungle,” which I got for Christmas in eighth or ninth grade. The prose didn’t do much for me then. This book opens with an account of a car trip somewhere in Southern California–somewhere from the lower end of the Central Valley over the mountains to the Los Angeles area, probably. It’s immediate and colorful and actually reminds me a little of Tom Wolfe’s fiction: self-consciously thorough about contemporary details and observing the scene with an arched eyebrow. Here’s a passage from the opening chapter, titled “The Ride.”

Fifty miles, said the speedometer; that was Dad’s rule for open country, and he never varied it, except in wet weather. Grades made no difference; the fraction of an ounce more pressure with his right foot, and the car raced on–up, up, up–until it topped the ridge, and was sailing down into the next little valley, exactly in the centre of the magic grey ribbon of concrete. The car would start to gather speed, and Dad would lift the pressure of his foot a trifle, and let the resistance of the engine check the speed. Fifty miles was enough, said Dad; he was a man of order.

Far ahead, over the tops of several waves of ground, another car was coming. A small black speck, it went down out of sight, and came up bigger; the next time it was bigger yet; the next time–it was on the slope above you, rushing at you, faster and faster, a mighty projectile hurled out of a six-foot cannon. Now came a moment to test the nerve of the motorist. The magic ribbon of concrete had no stretching powers. The ground at the sides had been prepared for emergencies, but you could not always be sure how well it had been prepared, and if you went off at fifty miles an hour you would get disagreeable waverings of the wheels; you might find the neatly trimmed concrete raised several inches above the earth at the side of it, forcing you to run along on the earth until you could find a place to swing in again; there might be soft sand, which would swerve you this way and that, or wet clay which would skid you, and put a sudden end to your journey.

So the laws of good driving forbade you to go off the magic ribbon except in extreme emergencies. You were ethically entitled to several inches of margin at the right-hand edge; and the man approaching you was entitled to an equal number of inches; which left a remainder of inches between the two projectiles as they shot by. It sounds risky as one tells it, but the heavens are run on the basis of similar calculations, and while collisions do happen, they leave time enough in between for universes to be formed, and successful careers by men of affairs.

“Whoosh!” went the other projectile, hurtling past; a loud, swift “Whoosh!” with no tapering off at the end. You had a glimpse of another man with horn-rimmed spectacles like yourself, with a similar grip of two hands upon a steering wheel, and a similar cataleptic fixation of the eyes. You never looked back; for at fifty miles an hour, your business is with the things that lie before you, and the past is past. …