In January, President Joe Biden canceled the Keystone XL pipeline and ordered a drilling moratorium on federal land. The following month, a historic cold snap and a failed power grid turned Texas into a disaster zone. Even as policy debates about events like these unfold, each one serves as a wake-up call. Our reliance on the fossil-fuel industry is by now so old and deep that overdue regulations, while crucial, will not stop consequences already set in motion. The man-made, carbon-wrought transformation of our climate is here.
As we grapple with this reality, rather than fixating on abstract concepts and quantitative measures— energy prices, geopolitics, emissions rates, climate-science projections—we would do well to zoom in, way in, on those doing and allowing the drilling. Their stories contain a common promise: You’ll make a lot of money. Yet many lose, as do we all, in other ways before the bargain is closed. We can learn a lot from their ground-level wisdom about the human motives and exploitative economies that got us into this mess, as well as about the dangerous and toxic business of siphoning oil and gas from the earth below.
Two new books take us there. In The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown, Michael Patrick F. Smith finds his checking account and personal demons intertwined with the oil industry. At the height of the Bakken Formation oil boom, in 2013, Smith left Brooklyn seeking what he imagined would be challenging but lucrative work in the oil fields. A playwright and musician raised amid poverty and domestic abuse in rural Maryland, he never quite felt at home in gentrified Brooklyn or at his Midtown Manhattan office job that paid the bills. This identity crisis, combined with a penchant for self-punishment previously pursued through drugs and sex, sent him west to see whether he might finally make a man of himself at 36.
What he found in the now-infamous boomtown of Williston, North Dakota, was a cast of characters with even rougher pasts than his own. Smith’s memoir is about these men, who showed up from across the country and beyond to risk their lives on a windswept plain where the temperature might be 38 degrees below zero and the pay might be $20 an hour.
During his tenure in the oil patch, Smith worked as a truck driver’s assistant, or swamper, for a rig-moving company. His face grew chapped and his body toughened as he threw chains beneath the immense North Dakota sky, but the question that looms over the narrative is whether his sense of self would be transformed. He was smaller and older than most of the men doing his low-ranking job; could he earn the respect of his supervisors—grizzled bastards who pegged him for a wuss and tried to run him off? Would he, in the parlance of those workers, make a good hand?
Smith stayed on for nine months, a fair bit longer than the proverbial journalistic parachute jump, and his pre-Trump-era mission was more personal than anthropological. Still, his most important contributions are not musings about what the experience meant to him but vivid descriptions of the experience itself. The Good Hand ’s scenes in “the patch” are beautiful, funny, and harrowing, constructed with metal hooks, workplace lingo, poetic profanity, and the author’s palpable fear. (From 2008 through 2017, more than 1,500 oil-and-gas workers died from injuries sustained on the job, according to a report by the Center for Public Integrity. That amounts to, roughly, a death every other day.) As someone whose immediate family bears the scars of physical labor in another Great Plains state, and who rarely sees her native class convincingly portrayed, I relished these anecdotes and the validation they provide.
Smith’s dangerous toil on the job mirrored a dangerous life outside work among the same hard men, some of whom were attracted to the area by the possibility of good pay with no background checks. (When Smith arrived at a flophouse, his highly common name— Mike Smith—alarmed the slumlord, who worried that he was another fugitive with an alias looking for a room.) Smith weaves in heartbreaking stories from his upbringing, and from the pasts of the men he came to know, implicitly making a compelling argument that busted men are tasked with busting the earth.
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