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Oil! (California Fiction) Paperback – April 30, 1997

4.0 out of 5 stars 91 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

Sinclair's 1927 novel did for California's oil industry what The Jungle did for Chicago's meat-packing factories. The plot follows the clash between an oil developer and his son. Typical of Sinclair, there are undertones here of socialism and sympathy for the common working stiff. Though the book is not out of print, this is the only paperback currently available.
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.


"He does his little bit of muck-raking. . . but the glorious story of the oil man and his son rushes on. It is a marvelous panorama of Southern California life. It is storytelling with an edge on it." -- The New Republic

"Oil! remains the most ambitious Southern California novel of the 1920s. . . . Chosen by the Literary Guild, Oil! made the best-seller list. Its sales were helped along when Sinclair, hoping to get arrested, personally hawked copies of the book on the streets of Boston, after it was banned there for its outspoken advocacy of birth control." -- Kevin Starr, Endangered Dreams

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Product Details

  • Series: California Fiction
  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press; Reprint edition (April 30, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520207270
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520207271
  • Product Dimensions: 8.1 x 5.4 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (91 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,851,309 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Unlike Sinclair's best-known novel, "The Jungle," with its bleak story and gloomy characters, "Oil!" is a fast-paced, lively and colorful story. Although Sinclair uses it to preach his political views, it is nevertheless a good piece of literature and an interesting historical testimony to the era in which it was written. Another striking thing is how Sinclair's descriptions of corporate manipulations tend to mirror very recent events. Interesting also is that Sinclair uses one of the oldest cliches in American literature, the coming-of-age story, as the vehicle for this epic; at the same time, there are indications that Sinclair seems to mock this manner of story-telling - from the main character's rather silly nick-name, "Bunny" to his perennial inability to make up his mind about where he wants to go with his life, i.e. he never really 'comes of age.' Other reviewers have noted Sinclair's apparently naive promotion of socialism/communism/the Bolsheviks, which is a valid criticism, although to me it seemed more a case of the author throwing out ideas to provoke readers into thinking rather than an attempt to persuade them. In this sense, his use of the family of a wealthy California oil baron as the main protagonists is quite telling: although Sinclair does take the opportunity to highlight the hypocrisy and greed of the moneyed classes, he also makes a genuine attempt to portray them as real people rather than just grotesque caricatures. I also noticed that many of his characterizations of the working class/poor are often less than flattering. Regardless, this is a really entertaining novel, probably Sinclair's best.
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Format: Paperback
When Warren G. Harding died suddenly in California in 1923, he was one of the most beloved President's ever. It wasn't long, however, before that opinion changed, so that today he is considered among the worst. The revelation after his death of the Teapot Dome scandal that occurred during his administration was paramount in destroying his reputation. And it involved oil (the naval oil reserves in Wyoming were being sold off by corrupt politicians close to Harding). Sinclair based this novel on Teapot Dome. It basically shows how a decent man and his son Bunny Ross are up against insurmountable odds in the oil business, what with corruption all around. Sinclair's solution was dramatic: for him socialism was the answer; capitalism was too corrupt. A big, brawling novel, not particularly memorable for its style; but its muscular approach and willingness to tackle important issues make it worth reading.
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Format: Paperback
Anyone who wants a vivid, first-hand account of Southern California life in the 1920's will love this novel. It captures the go-go energy of the times, peppered with jazz-era slang, which perhaps was so fresh at the time this novel was written that Sinclair chose to put these terms in quotations. (Modern readers will be surprised that most of this slang is in common use today). Of course, one can't ignore the larger political, social and cultural themes that explode upon these pages. The oil boom that grips everyone in Southern California is just the tip of the iceberg. The weirder aspect is how little has changed in the past 75 years, We are still grappling with the same issues of political corruption, wage inequality, excesses of capitalism, cult of celebrity, and lest we forget, the youth and car culture. Even more disturbing are the passing references to American oil interests in the middle east. There's some laugh out loud passages; one of the most memorable concerns an Oklahoma oil man who lays on the down-home drawl to intimadate European diplomats. Hmmmm, now that sounds familiar....
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Format: Paperback
I came to "Oil!" for two reasons. One, I had recently read "The Jungle," and became enamored with Sinclair's wit and prose; two, I had watched "There Will Be Blood," and found it such a thought-provoking film that I had better read the book that inspired it. (This tactic worked recently for me, with "Blood's" ideological counterpart "No Country Old Men", which got me hooked on the writing of Cormac McCarthy.)

I hesitate to throw out a disclaimer, but I must assume that many potential readers will come to this book through the movie, so I have to say it: The book is nothing like the film (which directer Paul Thomas Anderson has stated); the movie gets its start from the first few pages of "Oil!"; which means, since there's over 500 pages left, that there's quite a bit of story yet to tell.

I say this simply as a disclaimer. By all means, buy the book and read it. Upton Sinclair was known for his Socialist sympathies ("Oil!", like "The Jungle," reads like a Socialist manifesto), but what interests me about his writing is how his prose is still poetic and witty. Yes, there are some political points that, now having experienced WWII and the Cold War, seem dated; but in 1927, Sinclair was a borderline-revolutionary, and his Socialist sympathies put him in danger. He managed to convey that fear to "Oil!", which details an oil tycoon's son, as he slips into the Socialist world and ends up fighting the industry that made his dad a success. I wouldn't say "Oil!" is as cutting-edge as "The Jungle" was, but it certainly is a social commentary/satire that cuts straight to the bone of American capitalism. Written eighty years ago, it still holds power today; if that isn't a sign of great literature, then I just don't know what is.
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