Michael Patrick F Smith sublet his Brooklyn, New York flat in 2013 and headed to North Dakota, joining thousands of people who flocked to the region looking for work at the height of the Bakken shale boom in the US.
Early in his engaging new book, The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown, Smith describes life in a crowded “flophouse” in the town of Williston, a “revolving door for people who came into town looking for a new start, a new job, and a better life” — and the promise of big money.
Much more than a memoir, The Good Hand is interspersed with bits of history about the oil and gas business and America’s westward expansion, examples of how petroleum products pervade modern life, and discursions on the authors and American folk singers that have inspired Smith, himself a musician.
But the spotlight never strays far from the men in the field.
“Giving a voice to the people who do the work was the most important part of it,” Smith says, in a video call from his home in Lexington, Kentucky.
“I just think it’s incredibly important, with all the polarisation in the world, to try to figure out what makes people tick.”
That empathetic impulse runs throughout the book. Smith does not sugarcoat the uglier aspects of the boom, including the substance abuse, epic brawls, and the racism and misogyny he often encountered.
But he also finds tenderness and vulnerability in these young men living hard lives.
Smith grew up in a troubled family in rural Maryland. Theatre gave him a passion and a way out, eventually landing him in New York City. He planned to return to Brooklyn after what he thought would be a short, lucrative stint in the shale patch.
The job hunt in Williston was harder than he expected — playwright, actor, junk hauler and musician was not a CV that turned heads in overrun recruitment offices. But Smith was persistent and eventually landed a job as a “swamper” for a trucking company setting up and dismantling drilling rigs.
Writing about the experience “gave me a chance to constantly kind of break down my thinking about things. And it led to more ambivalence and grey areas and just deeper consideration of things,” he says.
“When I set out to write it, I had no intention of making it a memoir. I wanted to write something about the lives of the people I met. But the more I delved into it, it became clear to me that the only way I could talk honestly about these guys’ lives was if I also talked about my own life. So I tried to treat my own experience with as much of a scalpel as I was using on others’ lives.”
That self-examination produced some deeply personal and uncomfortable passages in The Good Hand. But it also gave Smith a better understanding of and appreciation for the very substance that he and his co-workers were helping bring to the surface, often in difficult and dangerous conditions.
Out with friends during a return visit to New York, he recalls scanning the surroundings — the buses and taxis, the lights, even the varnish on a pub counter. “It appears to me like in a vision, this strange and startling fact," he writes. "New York benefits from the oil boom far more than Williston ever will. No one here realises that. Nobody even considers it.”
Smith had not considered it much himself before setting off for North Dakota.
“With an issue as complex, as strange and interesting as fossil fuel extraction, you can really get lost in just trying to understand it. It’s a lot to wrap your head around, so a lot of people just don’t try to understand it. But they still have very strong feelings about it,” he tells Upstream.
“I think that with oil, the key word is precious. It’s a precious material,” he says.
“We’ve engaged in great overuse of it, from where I’m standing. But that doesn’t mean that it’s bad.”
The Good Hand addresses wider debates over oil but never lets them derail the story. Smith has a playwright’s ear for dialogue, a reporter’s knack for the telling detail, a novelist’s way with a good metaphor and the storytelling skill of a folk singer — and he puts them all to good use.
The title refers to the term oilfield bosses use to describe the most dependable labourers — a sign of appreciation that he hopes the book will extend to “anyone who has the desire to get a better sense of the lives of the guys who are turning the wrenches,” including “the corporate oil folks”.
"I think the best bosses I’ve ever worked for have a good understanding of the people who work for them — who value that work, and understand the thoughts and concerns and the culture of the people that work for them," he says.
Smith headed back east shortly before the Williston boom turned to bust. The big money proved ephemeral, but he came away with something more valuable — a rollicking story that, with its nuanced look at the political, environmental and social issues surrounding the production of oil and our use of it, feels very much of the moment.