CLAY JENKINSON: Future In Context — North Dakota’s Gold Rush: A Memoir About The Fracking Boom

Michael Patrick F. Smith would not seem to fit the profile of an oil field worker. He’s an actor, a musician and a playwright who sublet his Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment to head out west to Williston, N.D., during the height of the Bakken Oil Boom in 2013. As he admits, “It’s a weird resume for a man applying to work in the oil fields.” Now he’s published a thoughtful and well-written memoir of that misadventure,The Good Hand.”

(You can read Clay Jenkinson’s interview with Michael Patrick Smith here.)

“The Good Hand” is two journey stories under one cover. It is the story of one of the thousands of men (and some women) who gravitated to the Bakken between 2005 and 2016 in search of jobs, wealth, adventure and excitement in an industrial arena where things are so hectic that the norms begin to break down and all sorts of marginal or illicit pleasures are possible. It is also a personal journey story of a talented man with an uncertain core identity who thought he might find clarity on one of the last frontiers. In the end, the personal journey story dominates, but the cast of extras is fabulous. It’s like a carnival but with gargantuan equipment. Smith’s oil field pals are not the kind of young men you invite home to Sunday brunch.

As a North Dakotan who is fascinated by the Bakken boom, which brought tens of thousands of men and women, mostly men, to a place they would never otherwise have visited, much less lived, I picked up “The Good Hand” to learn how well North Dakota handled a 21st-century analog to the California Gold Rush of 1849. Not particularly well or badly, seems to be the answer to that question, but I soon realized that Smith was not especially interested in North Dakota except insofar as it was the location, the platform, on which the human drama of the oil rush played itself out. It might just as well have been west Texas. His focus is on the kind of men who gravitate to oil booms or other madcap industrial developments. “The Good Hand” is a memoir about brokenness — his own and the brokenness of most of the individuals he met on the vast and open plains of a little-visited state tucked up against the Canadian border.

Broken Men from Broken Homes in a Broken Industry

Smith comes from a badly broken home back east — a violent, raging father, a favorite sister who died at the age of 16 in an automobile accident and a mother who found the courage to leave her abusive husband, who periodically threatened to kill his wife and his children, and they knew he wasn’t altogether bluffing. Brokenness is the organizing principle of the book.

Smith writes, “That scar, that hole in a man’s soul the shape of his father, was a defining feature of every man I met in Williston. Men had built their lives around it. Like a tree growing around a hatchet. The father wound served as a method of communication between me and the men I met. We talked jobs, then fathers. Before women, before politics, before home, ‘Man, my dad whipped my ass!’ It bonded us together.”

Among other things, this passage indicates how superb a writer Smith is. But here’s the most compelling insight of “The Good Hand.” Smith believes that extractive industrial capitalism depends on the father wound — the brokenness — to accomplish its mission. This kind of industrial capitalism attracts (preys on?) strong working class, Lee Greenwood, loose-ends young men who are willing to sacrifice their best years and their health while living in decidedly marginal communities. The work is backbreaking and heartbreaking, too, but the payoff is enough cash to make the day off an orgy of drink, loud conversations heavily laced with the f-word, opioids if you want them, pliant strippers and a street fight if you aren’t careful.

In other words, an oil boom attracts men who are not so much seeking economic independence as escaping the civilities they would be forced to observe if they were living in their home communities, surrounded by family, familiar neighbors, pastors, former schoolteachers and community cops. They may come west for the best and most earnest reasons, but it is not long before most of them descend into a testosterone coma that brings them to the brink of mayhem or the personal “bust” that is sure to follow any boom.

The Basement of Maslow’s Hierarchy

When you watch the drilling of a single fracking well in the Bakken, as if in a time lapse video, you surrender to a kind of gross industrial awe. The oil must be leased. It’s 13,000 feet below the surface of the Earth. An approach road is created to the spot. A level gravel pad of an acre or two is shaped. Power lines are brought to the site from the nearest trunk lines. The drilling rig is trucked in and set up. (This was Smith’s place in the equation: mantle and dismantle). Enough pipe to slink seven miles into the ground must be piled up neatly at the site. Two thousand water trucks have to visit the site, with water hauled from 10 or a hundred miles away. Fracking material — a special kind of sand or tiny plastic pellets — arrives. An array of modular buildings — trailers — are arranged to facilitate the drilling. Colossal hydraulic engines inch in to provide the enormous pressure required to fracture (frack) the shale in which the oil is suspended.

It may take two weeks to drill down and frack the shale or two months. Gamers with joysticks find the thin layer of oil-bearing shale, using extremely sophisticated sensing equipment and colorful monitors. Then they force the fracking fluids through perforated pipe into the fissures of the rock (seven miles down!). As soon as natural gas and oil start to find their way to the surface, they dismantle the whole industrial village, slap a pump jack and some storage tanks on the pad and move to the next site.

(Above: At about the same time that Michael Smith lived and worked in the Bakken oil field, the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph visited a fracking site near Williston, N.D., to see how it is done, November 2013.)

Drilling a single Bakken well can cost up to $10 million. This is how we get the oil that becomes the gasoline that you take for granted when you drive to the grocery store or the reunion. This is how we achieve energy independence. This is where the natural gas comes from that heats your home and cooks your pork roast. At the height of the boom, during the time Smith lived in western North Dakota, between 180 to 213 of these rigs were operating simultaneously, each one employing a couple of hundred people, many of them unskilled field grunts like Smith. (Actually, many of them are highly skilled, but the work they do is mostly grunt work).

An average Bakken well will produce up to 600,000 barrels of oil over 30 to 40 years. A 42-gallon barrel of oil will yield about 20 gallons of gasoline. The average American consumes 656 gallons of gas per year. If you work the math, all this means that a single well will supply 609 people their annual gas ration. The American people consume about 2.9 billion barrels of oil per year. North Dakota currently exports approximately 1.25 million barrels per day.

The Cost of Extracting Black Gold in the Name of Energy Independence 

When you see all of this in the field, you come to a few remarkable conclusions:

  • One: We must really want that black liquid substance if we are willing to spend $10 million just to get at it. If we learned that a lost painting of Rembrandt were buried at 13,500 feet in the earth, would we spend $10 million to dig it out?
  • Two: We have developed extremely sophisticated methods of getting at that oil, but the process nevertheless requires the labor of hundreds and thousands of strong young men who are willing to live in substandard housing in a barren landscape, hundreds or thousands of miles from their kin, performing dangerous and extremely exhausting work out-of-doors in a place where winters are long and raw, often brutal.
  • Three: We may be headed to a post-carbon future, but it’s going to be hard to find a substitute for this miracle liquid that powers the world economy. It must truly be magical if we are willing to use so much equipment and human muscle to draw it up out of the ground.
  • Four: The oil business is based entirely on extraction — extraction of a precious resource from under the Earth, extraction of the metals that make the rigs and the pipes, extraction of gravel for the roads and pads, extraction of sand or plastic (made from oil) for the fracking process; but also extraction (or perhaps subtraction) of the aesthetic value of landscapes in all the places where oil is developed, extraction of the quality of life of the people who happen to live permanently in or near a boom town, extraction of the best years of the lives of the men (and some women) who drift around to work the boom sites, not to mention the friends and families they leave behind when they go in quest of the American dream.

Here’s how Smith summarizes the profile. “Testosterone-fueled young men are working 14-hour shifts at jobs that can kill them in a town without friends or family. It only makes sense that the dangerous work of the day spills past sunset as parentless white boys roar through the night in F-250s …”

Smith arrived in North Dakota in the summer of 2013. He had a very hard time finding a place to sleep — not to live, but merely to sleep. He had a hard time finding a job. When he did, he wound up working very long hours with very little time off, and the pay, though good, was never what he and the rest of the oil field workers had come to expect. In fact, Smith left the state of North Dakota with less money than he brought to the adventure.

In this, he was roughly typical. It’s hard to generalize accurately for several tens of thousands of oil field workers, but most came with very high economic expectations and left sobered and disillusioned. The cost of living in the Bakken oil zone was high. At one time, it was cheaper to rent an apartment in New York than in Williston or Watford City, N.D. If “The Good Hand” is an accurate window on the boom, most of the workers played as hard as they worked. Smith’s pals seemed to spend every hour when they weren’t working either sleeping or drinking and often enough brawling.

The Book’s Paradox

It’s not clear what Michael Smith was trying to prove out in the oil fields. It was not finally about money. In fact, as a talented musician, he might have made more money entertaining oil field workers than slinging metal with them on the pads. This is the lesson of virtually every gold rush — the profit is in serving or servicing the miners, not sharing their privations. He did not take back to Brooklyn, and now Kentucky, any skills that would transfer to a less industrial career. As the title of the memoir makes clear, what he wanted most was to be accepted as a “good hand,” someone who was reliable, uncomplaining, hardworking and tough enough to take the physical and emotional abuse of the industry.

“The work woke something up inside of me,” Smith writes, “something that had been dormant for some time, something simple and elemental. I liked being tired at the end of the day. I like having sore arms and sore feet. I liked getting dirty. On top of that, I loved the opportunity to do something I felt had meaning. It woke up my hands and my heart.”

He stood the test — graduated from a rookie’s green hardhat to the standard white one — and had the opportunity to spend a big chunk of his life in northwest North Dakota, but chose to retreat after 10 months, before his body broke down or his after-hours diversions had the chance to spin out of control. He is a bit vague on just what motivated him, but he locates it in proving a kind of working-class masculinity that seems not to get validated in his artistic life — now he is a writer with an agent, working on his second book!

The Good Hand” is a book of paradoxes. The East Coast liberals who are most critical of carbon are just as hopelessly addicted to all that oil brings to world civilization and the American economy as the proponents of big oil, which convicts them either of ignorance or hypocrisy. “New York benefits from the oil boom far more than Williston ever will.” The broken young men and women who seek the American Dream or some other fulfillment out on the energy frontier usually wind up even more broken when they finally limp away with chronic back problems, shattered personal relationships with the ones they left behind, and empty pockets. Most of the individuals Smith met in the Bakken were foul-mouthed, law-breaking, pass-out-drunk, racists, bigots, sexists and angry patriots, and yet many of them were in some essential way good people and good friends, and a few of them, like Smith’s closest Bakken friend, Huck, somehow beautifully innocent. “I struggled with this question,” Smith writes, “even as I enjoyed the company of unabashed bigots and learned to compartmentalize their casual, constant, continuing faucet of racism. How terrible is that? Does it make me a bad person? I don’t know. How do you love men you disagree with so violently on the ethical and moral questions that you think define you?”

One climax of the book comes when the crew travels to Glendive, Mont., to set up a new rig. In the middle of a day off of hard drinking — that’s invariably what they do on their days off — Smith reveals that he voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 and 2012 elections. If this were a film (which it deserves to be) the whole bar would instantly go silent and everyone would turn to stare at whatever man uttered so outrageous, so appalling, so heretical a sentence. The result was explosive. “We’re all here because we’re capitalists,” one of Smith’s colleagues shouts. “Obama is a socialist. He wants to give your money to crack addicts.” “’Jesus Christ,’ said Tex, ‘a real flesh-and-blood Democrat!’” And so on all day long.

Smith doesn’t spend a lot of time writing about North Dakota, but when he does, he writes about it beautifully:

“It is 20 degrees below zero, and the sun has yet to rise. My breath crystallizes in front of me. I watch the crystals all but fall to the earth as soon as they appear. I look up. The sky is racked with stars. They pulse in brilliance through an atmosphere so thin and clean that I feel like if I reached up to grab them, they would burn my hand. But they wouldn’t—they are cold and distant—so I don’t. I stuff my hands in my jacket pockets as a single big rig barrels past me. It takes all the sound with it, and the silence once it passes is full and strange. I start walking, my boots on icy gravel the only sound.”

As a writer and a deep lover of North Dakota, I can tell you: Smith nails it.

The great book on the Bakken Oil Boom is yet to be written, but that does not make “The Good Hand” any less interesting. Call it a portrait of an artist as an oil field grunt. It’s a portrait of working class men through the eyes of a very talented writer.

“The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown,” Michael Patrick F. Smith, Viking Press, 464 pages, Feb. 16, 2021, $29

You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast,The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the new Governing podcast, The Future In Context.”

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