by Upton Sinclair
One of those books that can be retitled "Can You Finish It?" It's a thick, dense story that takes a long time to get started. In fact, the book didn't grab me until about halfway through it!
It starts with J. Arnold Ross and his six-or-seventh-grade son taking a car ride to a place in California where they are going to negotiate rights with a community to drill for oil on their land. You see, Mr. Ross is an independent oil baron. He's drilled dozens of tracts all over California, and has made quite a name for himself in the industry. The community descends into bickering with one another, and Ross abandons negotiating with those people. Instead, he drills somewhere else, on land with a much more reasonable person.
During this, Ross Jr. ("Bunny") meets Paul Watkins, a teenage runaway who wants to escape his father's religious fanaticism and strike out on his own, where he's free to think for himself and question the faith. Paul tells him there's oil on his father's land, but they're about to lose their house because they can't pay the bank anymore. Paul vanishes into the night.
Bunny is moved with compassion, so he takes his father there and begs him to buy the lease. He sees a way to get his father to do it: buy the lease and get an oil land to himself at the same time. They'll be helping a family in need and securing an oil field at once.
So they get to the Watkins ranch, Ross buys the land but doesn't tell the family there's oil on it. He is set to get millions out of the land, but only pays a few thousand for it. Bunny feels uneasy about this, but it is business.
To drill the oil, Ross has to bribe officials and buy local politicians just to get a road built. And then there is the strike. Bunny's father, along with the Petroleum Employers' Federation, put down a strike.
In practice Dad had observed that a labor union enabled a lot of officials to live off the work of the real workers; these officials became a class by themselves, a sort of vested interest, and they look out for themselves, and not for labor. They naturally had to make some excuse for their own existence, and so were apt to stir up the workers to discontent ...
Ah, but Paul, now head of the labor, argues that before Mr. Ross joined the Federation, he paid his employees a dollar a day more just to attract better workers. Once he joined what amounts to a union for the employers, he had to pay them the standard rate. The entire oil industry is unionized at the employer level who fixes prices, wages and working hours, so why should the workers not have a union to represent their interests, too?
Capital verses Labor. Bunny gets to see this conflict over and over, and then at the 45% mark or so, something interesting happens: the oil baron's son becomes a communist sympathizer. I had to slog through over 200 pages before the book got interesting. Up until then, everything Mr. Ross does comes across as just necessary to do business. But when Bunny starts to turn Red, now I have to see how this plays out.
The first world war happens, and though Bunny is protected from serving, Paul goes into it and ends up in Siberia for over a year. Bunny learns from one of his college professor the real reason for the war:
What Mr. Irving said was that our troops were in Siberia because American bankers and big business men had loaned enormous sums of money to the government of the Tsar, both before the war and during it; the Bolshevik government had repudiated these debts, and therefore our bankers and business men were determined to destroy it. It was not merely the amount of the money, but the precedent involved; if the government of any country could repudiate the obligations of a pervious government, what would become of international loans?
Bunny slowly begins to understand how the country works, and who's running it, and it isn't the government.
Bunny's father joins with Victor Roscoe, another independent oil baron, and form a joint company. As the years go by, Dad and Mr. Roscoe apply those old techniques on a bigger scale. They buy politicians, judges, everyone they need to obtain more land for drilling and to keep the workers down.
This book portrays what the communist movement was really all about, and it had nothing to do with taking hard-earned money and giving it to people who didn't earn it. It was about getting rid of the elite class of fat cats living off the work of others.
It even presents the Capitalist's point of view:
"I can buy officials, just the same as I can buy any politicians, or anybody else that a bunch of boobs can elect to office. ... It's because i had the brains to make the money, and I got the brains to use it. Money ain't power till it's used, and the reason I can buy power is because men know I can use it. ... I'm going to find oil and bring it to the top of the ground and refine it and sell it to whoever's got the price. So long as the world needs oil, that's my job; and when they can get along without oil, I'll do something else. And if anybody wants to share in that job, let him do like I done, get out and sweat, and work, and play the game."
"But Mr. Roscoe, that's hardly a practical advice for all the workers. Everybody can't be an operator."
"No, kiddo, you bet your boots they can't--only them that's got the brains. The rest have to work."
Bunny realizes all his father's wealth was earned on the backs of underpaid, overworked workers. People die getting their oil out of the ground, and yet the oil barons don't think the workers deserve a living wage, or safe conditions.
This is what the Men Who Built America thought of their workers.
This is fascinating, watching a rich kid come to terms with the reality of where his life of luxury came from. He's not really a communist, but he does sympathize with them. Really, what were the ideas that constituted a Red?
Apparently there are communist ideas: To acknowledge that the whole reason we go to war and are involved with other countries is because the rich business owners demand a return on their investment, therefore the rest of us must fight and die for them. They buy the press, the movies, the politicians and get them to present it as a moral and just reason to fight, but really it's all about money and protecting their status as the rich elite.
Perhaps we have no right to be in foreign countries. Perhaps we should leave other countries alone. Perhaps these people were merely trying to fight for their equal right. Perhaps they fight to get rid of the burden of occupation, and we are in fact the bad guy? Maybe the only threat was to the white man's ruling class and it had nothing to do with morality at all, but to protect the current establishment?
These are the ideas that got someone branded as a communist? To dare criticize America's intentions, its institutions? There was a time when certain viewpoints were heavily censored. We don't like to call it that in America, but it's what happened. Voicing ideas like these was once forbidden. These were the ideas that were branded un-American and censored??
Nothing could change the fact that it was on money wrung from Paradise workers that Bunny was living in luxury; nothing could change the fact that it had been to increase the amount of this money, to intensify the exploitation of the workers, that Paul had spent three months in jail and the other fellows were to spend nearly a year in jail.
J. Arnold Ross got rich by working his people into the ground. The Capitalists argue that without themselves to direct the whole process, none of those men would have had a job to begin with, but, Bunny wonders, does that really justify taking everything and giving next to nothing to the people who got that oil out of the ground for them? The Socialist movement was about balance and fairness, not redistribution.
Bunny witnesses all the things his father did when he was just an independent. He took the Watkins land without telling them he thought there was oil on it, bribed politicians to get roads built for him, bought up land secretly so no one suspected an oil man was there and the prices go up. When it's small like this, it's just something a man has to go get business done without being cheated.
But when Mr. Ross and Mr. Roscoe do these things on a national scale, things are different. Their company buys politicians, judges, clerks and everyone up and down the line to manipulate the government to the oil barons' favor. People fake documents, destroy still more documents and create legal reason to kick people off their land when oil is discovered on or near it. These people are out of a home, receive no compensation for the oil on their land, or the land itself, and because the oil companies bought the judges and the politicians, there is no legal recourse.
A pitiful, pitiful story--and the worst part of it, you could see it wasn't a single case, but a system. One more way by which the rich and powerful were plundering the poor and weak!
Bunny learns it isn't those who work the hardest who get the reward of riches and success, rather those who exploit others the best that get to be rich and live easy lives. He wonders if there is a better system to live by than simply to throw all the world's resources on the ground and let everyone fight for it all, and only the greediest, nastiest, most heartless people get anything.
Here are a few more good quotes:
It was a world in which some people worked all the time, and others played all the time. To work all the time was a bore, and no one would do it unless he had to; but to play all the time was equally a bore, and the people who did it never had anything to talk about that Bunny wanted to listen to.
Capitalism formed a class of rich elites who do nothing but go to parties and gossip about each other. Bunny doesn't fit into this life at all. He sympathizes with the oil workers who risk their lives to get oil out of the ground, all so he and Dad can live easy. Bunny feels guilty about it.
but what did she want with five thousand a week? To buy more applause and attention, as a means of getting more thousands and for more weeks? It was a vicious circle--exactly like Dad's oil wells. The wobblies had a song about it in their jungles: "We go to work to get the cash to buy the food to get the strength to go to work to get the cash to buy he food to get the strength to go to work--" and so on, as long as your breath held out.
It was the working world then, as it is now.
...their lack of familiarity with their jobs was a cause of endless trouble; they would slip from greasy derricks, or get crushed by the heavy pipe, and the company had had to build an addition to the hospital. But of course that was cheaper than paying union wages to skilled men!
It is cheaper to hire people who don't know what they're doing and mess up more, than to hire skilled people a decent wage.
The book is about Bunny trying to decide what he is. Pink or Red. Socialist or Communist. Those who want to achieve better conditions and wages peacefully by negotiation, or those who want an outright revolution against the rich men who manipulate entire countries to protect their own power and business interests. This is what the Communists stood for. No wonder the Capitalists were so hell-bent against it.
The Capitalists despise democracy because it is only through buying the government that business can exist in this way, and they can have such power. Therefore, business becomes a competition to buy the government. The book portrays the Red goal being to break the strangle of big business on the government and restore democracy that represents the people's interests. Doesn't that sound familiar? Upton Sinclair wrote about today's world in 1927. Nothing has changed.
It's a very dense, hard-to-read book, but once J. Arnold Ross Jr. begins to sympathize with the communists, it becomes a surprising page-turner.
Compare that to....
There Will Be Blood (2007)
starring Daniel Day-Lewis
Take a moment to click on that link to rotten tomatoes. The movie has an astounding 91% rating from critics and 86% from audiences.
I found the film boring, pretentious, amateurish and unfocused. What do people see in this movie? Does anyone see anything, or was this a case of cronyism to boost a director's career?
The film has nothing to do with the book. The character names aren't the same, the events aren't the same, the themes aren't the same. The book is both a presentation of what the communists are against, and an oil baron's son trying to decide how to sympathize with the Reds without distancing himself from his father. The struggle of capital verses labor, and the young man who straddles the border between the upper class capitalists who have everything, and the lower class workers who toil for table scraps so the upper class can have that life of luxury.
The movie tries to be a character study of an oil baron named Daniel Plainview (not J. Arnold Ross). Ok, that can still work. Portraying what kind of man it takes to be an oil baron in the early 1900's could be interesting in and of itself.
The first ten minutes or so of the movie are silent. At first I thought there was something wrong with my copy, then finally something happens that makes a noise. I knew then I was dealing with a "director's film," meant to showcase the director's "vision." All right, I respect that--it worked great for Quentin Tarantino.
So a man named Paul Sunday tells them he found oil on his father's land (the family is not named Watkins for some reason). The family leases the land and they start drilling. When they finally hit oil, Plainview's son is struck deaf.
There's a scene with Eli Sunday that has him confronting Daniel about getting their share of the money. Plainview slaps Eli and shoves his face in the oil, yelling that God wasn't there for his son, so why should he pay up? Yeah, the big fight scene is just a silly slap and getting his face shoved in oil. It's poorly acted, not choreographed, not dramatic. It comes across as kinda lame.
Then Eli berates his father for letting Plainview come into their town and push them around. What? When? We have seen no evidence of Daniel pushing anyone around. He's done nothing but drill for oil, and we have not seen how this affects anyone else.
The movie tries to make Eli and Plainview into rivals. Eli the famous preacher standing for God, and Plainview the businessman who stands for no God. But just as their conflict heats up, Eli goes away to spread God's word elsewhere and isn't seen again until the end of the film.
In the book, Eli Watkins starts a religion called the Third Revelation. He encourages the congregation to commune with the Holy Spirit by going into fits of seizure and rolling around the floor speaking in tongues. He seduces all of southern California with his powerful preaching and radio messages, but he's never Ross' rival. Eli and his religion serve no purpose to the story aside from some comedy relief, and to demonstrate why the rich think they have a right to buy the government: average people are idiots, so why should businessmen respect the government and the rules when idiots like these elected those politicians?
The movie's problem is that it has no story to tell. It can't decide what it wants to be about. It's supposed to be a character study, but for as much screen time as Plainview has, we don't have a clue how he thinks, or why he does what he does. There's no big conflict, and even though he gets stinking rich, he stays completely local. He doesn't use his money on a grand scale, doesn't seem to do anything with it apart from buying himself a bigger house.
The oil guy of the movie exists in a vacuum. He has no family, no roots, no origin. In the book, he has an extended family with ties to the social upper class of the time. He has a former wife. He has business partners, political allies, and on and on. In the movie, he never branches out. His actions don't touch anyone outside of town, and there is no blood, no vendetta, no conflict, no opposition. He doesn't have to trample on anyone to get to the top, doesn't have to bribe or cheat or do very much to be the best. He must have, but the audience doesn't see it.
At the end, he goes into an amusing speech about milkshakes and kills Eli for no apparent reason. It's the most memorable scene in the film, but what was the point of all that?! Eli was never a threat to Plainview, never even a foil! The two were barely in conflict, and he just kills him like that! Why??
I was bored out of my mind watching the film, and the book was kinda boring, too, until the story finally began. The film could have portrayed the kind of man it would take to rise to the top of the oil industry, minus the Red sympathy. It tries to portray a rivalry between the man who believes everyone needs God to succeed, and the man who is succeeding without God. This could have been a good conflict, but it is so underdeveloped it doesn't exist. Instead, the movie spends all its time being artsy and stylish and completely misses the point of the story it wanted to tell.
Watching the Ross Jr. of the book become a socialist because of his millions of dollars, and discovering how the rich and powerful live off the work of others and control the governments of the world and send people to die in wars because it's good for their business, is way more interesting than trying to analyze an isolated oil baron in southern California whose actions never leave the neighborhood.
The book may be a dense, longwinded defense of the Bolsheviks and their cause, and maybe it paints too rosy a picture of what the Russian Revolution achieved prior to Stalin rising to power (which all sides agree was the worst thing possible that could have happened to the movement), but the book is far more interesting than the movie.
Kudos to the movie for inspiring me to read the book in the first place. For better and for worse, Hollywood makes books immortal.