This week, I’ve been sneaking in some time to finish Maya Rao’s Great American Outpost: Dreamers, Mavericks, and the Making of an Oil Frontier (2018). It is a familiar book and echos many of the themes and characters present in Blaire Briody’s The New Wild West: Black Gold, Fracking, and Life in a North Dakota Boomtown (2017). They’re both good reads.
But both books also bother me. Some of my complaints are the standard kind. Briody and Rao tend to focus on a particular cross section of the Bakken: people with troubled pasts who came to North Dakota during the boom either to strike it rich or, at least, to escape from their previous lives. Many deal with issues of addiction, violence, poverty, or other social ills, but their willingness to come to the Bakken offers a glimmer of redemption for these characters. Whatever difficulties that they have faced in life, Briody and Rao emphasize that individuals who trekked to the Bakken made their own decisions and retained their own agency. This agency, however, is a bit toxic in that it only establishes these figures as tragic heroes who cannot escape their own past despite their efforts.
The tragic figures who populate these two books create a kind of tension. On the one hand, reading about the lives of these individuals is sufficiently removed from a kind of imagined suburban norm to represent some kind of economically, socially, or morally compromised “other.” On the other hand, their inability to escape their past remains us of destruction wrought by the Bakken boom on communities and the landscape. In other words, both authors push us to consider whether we can dismiss these individuals as damaged dreamers who came to the Bakken in an effort to redeem compromised lives or whether we are fundamentally similar to these individuals. Perhaps our thirst for fossil fuels, material things, and wealth has made us complicit in the both the social and environmental ruin that the Bakken seems to promise.
If this argument runs through each of these book, it’s implicit. (Especially in comparison to Matt Hern, Am Johal, and Joe Sacco’s remarkable Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life: A Tar Sands Tale (MIT 2017)).
There is a superficiality to Briody’s and Rao’s books. That is not to say that they are not well-researched, well-written, or carefully arranged, but that their main interest is the surface. The descriptions Rao’s book are particularly intriguing. They trace the contours of the Bakken in great detail from the rugged badlands of McKenzie County to the featureless prairies of the US-Canadian border. The characters are likewise drawn in careful detail with drug dealing ex-strippers, struggling fathers, wealthy tricksters, and wary locals rubbing shoulders and weaving tales. The work of the oil fields also received sustained attention with drilling, fracking, wastewater disposal, driving trucks, and even “stacking” drill rigs described in detail. Truck stops, watering holes, restaurants, and RVs served as interview rooms and background for much of the book.
The fascinating thing about Rao’s richly drawn landscapes and figures is that they were so gently superimposed on one another. They spaces and people produce exotic places that are as ephemeral as the boom itself. The surfaces glided seamlessly beneath each other without the creation of depth or substance like diaphanous drapery that only hints at its existence while leaving what it covers exposed.
The expansiveness of these transparent – or at least translucent – surfaces eliminates any space for the kind of ironic revelations that are so familiar in academic writing. What you see is literally what you see. It does not stand in for something else. It does not craftily allude to its opposite. It barely trades in implicitness beyond the simple notion that in the 21st century we’re all tragic characters in the fight against environmental degradation, precarity, and exploitative practices inherent to capitalism and extractive industries.
I tend to think that the daily confrontation with the seemingly intractable challenges of capital, precarity, and climate change has revealed the variegated surfaces that these phenomena have produced. There is no larger lesson, there is not reality that lurks beneath these “structures,” and there is little to brook any deeper interpretation that goes beyond nuanced description. Even history itself succumbs to the expansiveness of this surface. The California Gold Rush, the Alaska pipeline rush, and the first boom are simply variations on the theme of booms, busts, and opportunism. For Rao, dreams and dreamers are just that. They don’t reveal some long suppressed wish, injury, or hope. Rao’s Bakken dreamers ARE these hopes, wishes, and scars. Interpretation is unnecessary and probably futile.
In this way, Rao’s and Briody’s books stand as an explicit and familiar monuments that tells a well-known tale. The surfaces prepared by these authors offers the kind of complicated reflection that makes the possibility of othering the denizens of the Bakken impossible. We are what we see in the Borgesian surface that extends in all directions. There’s no need to dig any deeper because it’s just surface, all the way down.