Oil! was to the California oil boom what The Jungle was to the Chicago stockyards: a chance for Sinclair to present, as he quipped, human nature laid bare. The first major American novel on the oil industry, this minor epic is a hard-nosed, hard-hitting docket of corporate machinations, in striking ways describing the United States today as much as during the Jazz Age. The Harding administration and the Teapot Dome scandals were the direct catalysts for Sinclair’s reformist passion, and his exposé of bribery, corruption, appalling industrial practices, and dog-eat-dog economic warfare had lost nothing of its edge decades later. However, unlike the unremitting squalor of Packingtown and its wage slaves, Oil! is set in sunny, breezy Southern California and narrated in a brisk and lively style punctuated up by the Roaring Twenties slang and jitterbug energy.
Through a coming-of-age (Bildungsroman) story of two boys (later young men), Sinclair contrasts the scorched-earth, laissez-faire capitalism with the romanticized universal panacea for proletarian suffrage—socialism. In an effort to eschew one-sidedness and stereotyping, the author not only focuses on the family of an oil magnate but also takes pains to develop members of the Ross household as full characters with their own principles, troubles, and even virtues. Although the novel was censured and even censored for references to birth control, its real focus is independent operators struggling against the oil monopoly. Against the background of the first two and one-half decades of the century, punctuated by the turmoil of World War I, the book climaxes with Paul’s death, leaving Bunny a wiser, though not necessarily fully matured, hero.
Widely regarded as one of Sinclair’s best works, Oil! contains many autobiographical elements, such as Bunny’s failed efforts at establishing a socialist commune. Descriptions of corporate greed and venality of the media on one hand, and taboo subjects such as abortion and birth control on the other, give this racy and colorful work the sweep of a hot-off-the-press best seller. Between oil tycoons, bankers, independent developers, union and strike leaders, oilfield workers (not all of them admirable), Bolsheviks, silent-era Hollywood stars, characters from the automobile and youth culture, and even a fire-and-brimstone evangelist, Oil! has the kind of flair that would enhance Sinclair’s reputation in American literature.