Out of the Channel

As a novelist, John Keeble has long been concerned with the complex and troubling relationship between money and power, between man and machine, between lifeform and landform. In this work of nonfiction, OUT OF THE CHANNEL, Keeble no longer has to fictionalize his concern. Instead, he turns into a reporter, an observer; his material is the tragically real case of the VALDEZ oil spill in April, 1989.

Keeble spends very little time with the accident itself; in a lone chapter, he describes the “imaginary journey” of Captain Joseph Hazelwood on the night of the accident, and eventually argues that Hazelwood was made a convenient scapegoat. Actual culpability, Keeble contends, lies with the American consumer, with his and her insatiable appetite for oil, and with the oil industry itself, which all too greedily feeds that appetite.

Indeed, Keeble’s real subject here is the complicated relationship among oil, money, power, landscape, and the people who inhabit that landscape. Keeble examines Alaska as place, as a geography of the West that is rich in both spiritual and mineral wealth. He studies the effects of the dizzying in-rush of wealth and machines and humankind upon the particular place of Prince William Sound, upon its fragile beaches and waterways, upon its people and their equally delicate psychologies. And he critiques the arrogant, exploitative behavior of both industry and government throughout the affair.

What Keeble discovers is the similar effects of oil and money: that money, after a time, began to act like oil, finding its way into certain places and not into others, filling the pockets and profoundly disturbing the lives of most people but not of others. The ultimate effect of the spill, Keeble maintains, is the “fragmentation” of the ecology of place: the wreaking of irreparable damage to what he calls the “exquisitely balanced chaos” of habitat. Keeble sides with those who argue that the cleanup did greater harm to the landscape than would have the oil, if left alone; in the end, he recommends prevention, and part of that preventive process includes the challenging overhaul of our spiritual and material ways of life.