Fictional oil truth

Aug. 6, 2012
If oil and gas workers don't read fiction, a reason might be the dearth of fiction grounded in basic knowledge about, let alone respect for, their business.

If oil and gas workers don't read fiction, a reason might be the dearth of fiction grounded in basic knowledge about, let alone respect for, their business.

Yet a novelist who makes this regrettable observation about oil-country reading habits has done her part to eliminate the excuse.

"No oil man I spoke to in the course of my research reads fiction," lamented Helen Knode in a letter to Oil & Gas Journal that accompanied a copy of her second book, Wildcat Play. Still, she wrote, "Someone you know might like to read a righteous mystery set on a drilling rig in California that is also a fond tribute to grassroots American oil."

Fond tribute to the American oil business? Call this reader hooked.

Fun to read

Indeed, Wildcat Play is more fun than a lease road at quitting time. Published in April by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, it tells a twisty murder mystery through the point of view of an inexperienced roughneck on a rig in California.

The worm got the job through an uncle, Joe, a respected and aging independent producer operating the high-stakes wildcat.

The story takes the worm through the ritual pranks any newcomer faces on a rig. And it holds color with other heavy doses of drilling realism as a murder occurs and the plot heaves forward.

With a convenient background in amateur sleuthing and an affiliation with a Los Angeles detective, the worm has a plausible foundation from which to solve the mystery.

What's more, the worm is female. This is an interesting condition for the first-person narrator of a story about violent death in a noisy, dangerous machine she describes as "exciting and scary—and powerful and downright sexy." As in much of life, the female perspective illuminates recesses of rig-floor psychology about which males of the realm might otherwise remain blissfully unaware.

The fictional character, Ann, has a biography interestingly similar to that of the real-world author.

Ann tells us she was born in Calgary into a family of oil workers, became a movie critic, and is joining the homestead of her uncle in the San Joaquin Valley oil fields after a setback in Los Angeles.

The author's biography follows a similar course: born in Calgary, part of a long-time oil family, former film critic in Los Angeles, now living in Austin.

On her web site, Knode reports that her great-grandfather was a well shooter in West Virginia. Her grandfather was an engineer with the Texas Railroad Commission during the "hot oil" controversies of the 1930s. Later, as a consultant recommended by the US government, he developed controversial oil and gas conservation guidelines in Alberta and became the first head of the provincial Petroleum and Natural Gas Conservation Board. Knode's late father worked in Calgary as a geologist.

Knode thus has enough mud on her intellectual boots to write truthful fiction about oil and gas.

Of course, that phrase, "truthful fiction," can seem oxymoronic to some. Many people expect to find no truth in the contrivances of someone else's imagination. This predisposition might further explain why Knode found no fiction-readers among the oil and gas folks she consulted in her research.

Pity. Like all art, good fiction conveys truth in special ways. It connects the interplay of invented characters with suppressed conflicts of readers, pulling into consciousness fresh understanding about external reality.

'Violent flip-flop'

If that sounds highfalutin, read this reflection by Ann, the worm-narrator-sleuth of Wildcat Play:

"I'd done a violent flip-flop and began hating the oil business. I'd hated it for a long time, because I hated my alcoholic father, and because hate was required in liberal circles. We'd had some tough times, Joe and I, until endless, hilarious debates with Hollywood people restored my perspective. They were so ignorant and self-righteous about the oil business—and consumed so much refined crude oil to make stinky movies and build third homes in Aspen. Not to mention cosmetic implants."

Who says there's no truth in fiction?

About the Author

Bob Tippee | Editor

Bob Tippee has been chief editor of Oil & Gas Journal since January 1999 and a member of the Journal staff since October 1977. Before joining the magazine, he worked as a reporter at the Tulsa World and served for four years as an officer in the US Air Force. A native of St. Louis, he holds a degree in journalism from the University of Tulsa.