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Review: He ditched his privilege to labor in a Dakota oil field. All he got was a powerful memoir

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The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown

By Michael Patrick F. Smith
Viking: 464 pages, $29

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What are you doing right now? Have you taken any risks lately? When’s the last time you were truly scared?

In the summer of 2012, Michael Patrick F. Smith read an article in Men’s Journal about the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota. At the time, he was working a white-collar job in lower Manhattan, living in Brooklyn, engaging in the drug- and alcohol-soaked bacchanal of “postadolescent” life available to any steadily employed white man in New York City. He was, it should come as no surprise, bored. So he sublet the apartment, bought a Chevy and drove to the site of the biggest oil boom in a century.

The Good Hand” is in part a meditation on how central oil is to our lives, but it is just as much about the gruesome work of actually extracting that oil. Why the Bakken? “Advances in drilling technology — horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing — have turned this massive though previously unrecoverable shale deposit into a river of sweet crude grease.” The influx of workers was like a “modern Grapes of Wrath,” Smith writes. “Desperate for bodies to work the rigs,” he explains, “North Dakota’s oil field companies gained a reputation for offering good pay, benefits, signing bonuses, per diems, and housing to any dude who could make the trek to town and swing a hammer when he got there.” Smith arrives with $3,000 in cash and $2,500 in credit. Can he swing a hammer?

This book could have been as unsurprising as the privileged life Smith left behind. Man is bored, does hard thing, emerges with lessons. What makes Smith’s book matter is the wealth of world-building detail, as well as the journey through pain both physical and psychological.

The first thing Smith has to do is find a place to live — a surprising obstacle from the start. Rents in northwest North Dakota are higher than Manhattan’s. Then he has to find a job. At a library, “Big-boned white men sit alone at scattered tables like lonesome rhinoceroses, poring over job applications and hunting-and-pecking online forms.” Then he has to survive. “A few years of felon-friendly, no-questions-asked hiring by oil companies has gifted Williston, North Dakota, with the highest concentration of rapists and child molesters in the world.”

After spending 10 nights in his Chevy, Smith locates a mattress for rent on the floor of a flophouse. Upstairs live a woman and her son, both with Tourette’s syndrome. The Jamaicans in another bedroom hide out from the racism rampant in the camp. A crew of drunks and psychopaths shares the cramped townhouse. Fights are common. “I lived among them like a friendly ghost,” Smith says, with characteristically poetic understatement. Life in the flop is like jail — “killing time, watching TV, maybe reading, trying to not let the other guys get on your nerves too bad. So you can get back to sleep. So you can wake up. So you can go back to work.”

Work: the simplicity of getting it and then trying not to die if you screw up. Or kill someone else. Or both. Smith’s triumph in securing the oil job is fleeting. The work really is that hard and that dangerous. “Even after lunch,” he writes, “my stomach feels empty and alert as if, instead of a ham sandwich, I had swallowed an exclamation point.”

There are about 600 chapters in this book. All are quite short. They jump around chronologically with astonishing success. From the first time Smith fits hooks and chains under a heavy piece of equipment to his sad attempts to make friends, from his first glimmers of self-doubt to his what-was-I-thinking agonies, what carries us along is imagery ripped from “There Will Be Blood” and replanted in striking prose.

“I have no way to describe it but as a big, metal thing,” he writes of the oil well.It is surrounded by trucks and cranes and men in hard hats and jumpsuits. I feel like I am staring at a dangerous book written in a different language.” This alien language becomes its own subject. “Oil rigs are called rigs because they are rigged up and rigged down,” he writes. “Trucks are also called rigs. Rigging is a verb as well as a noun. … Every piece of rigging is rigged by rigging.”

It takes nearly 100 pages to get a sense of who Smith is. Where does his pain come from, his determination, his original writing style? Turns out Smith has been an actor, playwright and musician and even played some serious gigs, opening for legendary folkie Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.

Yet he’s also like all the other boys of the boom. The ones who start conversations with what Smith comes to call the Williston Hello: “What kind of work do you do? Man, my dad whipped my ass!” His own story fits right in, and it becomes the real heart of the book. “My father had threatened to kill me, my mother, and all my siblings,” he writes. “And like a tree growing on the side of a rugged mountain, I’d conformed to this certain brutality in order to survive.”

So what do we get from nine months at Bakken, instead of predictable lessons learned? Smith doesn’t leave with what he’d hoped to earn but then he doesn’t lose any limbs. Nor does he form many enduring friendships — due partly to a horrifying stroke of bad luck — nor any work experience useful for life back East. “Had I really just given up everything I’d built in my life and driven 2,000 miles to this desolate patch of land so I could find a man to abuse me?”

There’s plenty of abuse, but one thing is for sure: Smith finds the energy, years later, to write a sprawling, heart-smeared-on-the-page howl of rage and pain. “The Good Hand” is a rambling honky-tonk of a book, with the soul of a songwriter and the ache of a poor white boy who grew up rough. It is big and it is pretty and it is amazing.

Deuel is the author of “Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East.”




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