An unusual sequel to Robinson's 2004 novel Gilead which sees her returning not just to that novel's characters, but to that novel's story, now told from the point of view of those living in a house not but a few minutes away. Marilynne Robinson's works of fiction--there are only three of them--deal initially with parent/child relationships, but this is essentially by necessity. What they really become is a kind of theological praxis, a laboratory where Robinson can work at answering questions of faith that would become stilted or confused if she were to stick to talking them out in a more non-fiction setting. (In both books, Robinson's characters consistently acknowledge that their theological debates are essentially circular conversations, and that forward momentum towards conclusion is not to be found. It's not addressed within the text that those sorts of debates are, by the nature of their subjects, impossible to conclude, but by the way all of the characters are depicted it is clear that their theological knowledge is implied. "I'm not going to make nonsense out of a mystery" is a phrase that pops up as the book struggles toward conclusion, but it's not the struggle of a writer who doesn't know where she is going. It's the purposeful slog of people trying so hard to wring the fabric of truth out of what they feel and what they mean that the very ground gapes to draw them low.
Tosches seems to have found himself on the disapproving end of the post-blog era, amongst that class of writers whose common thread is that a bunch of people on the Internet hate them for a multitude of contradictory reasons, and the theory that maybe it's just because they were the last batch of people who got decent paychecks and research budgets to write about music is dismissed in favor of pointing out how unaware they are of copious signifiers from the last three months. That's not to give Tosches' critics a blanket condemnation--his novels have deserved most of the disgust they've received--and his tendency to prioritize his brand over his points has always a nuisance. But there's a thing he does, or did, that has immense, inarguable value, and that's the gruntwork. His books--specifically his non-fiction books, of which this is one, the others being mostly music biographies--aren't built from pontification or enthusiasm, they're built from work. Like Steve Coll and Dostoyevsky, a Tosches book expects you to remember the names, to pay attention to the job titles, to keep up your end of the bargain. And while Coll will grant you the rich syrup of gossip for your labors, Tosches goes for wild-eyed poetry, for paragraph long breaks where he rhapsodically idolizes what it must be like to have a gigantic penis, or coldbloodedly explains what the spiral of drug addiction feels like. He forces himself into a corner, opening by saying that Sonny was murdered (a long standing piece of gossip that remains tantalizingly unprovable), only to conclude by saying he's glad he said that, but he doesn't believe it anymore. It's the sort of work we have too little of, a work that admits and admires unanswerable complexity, a book as opposed to disgusting behavior as it is to the idea that that behavior should be responded to in kind. There's nothing wrong with hate, venom, foul language or bile: but in the world where the children of Tosches now rule, it's worth recognizing that they're best left to the professionals.
The story of a man, a woman, and money that doesn't belong to them: that's the plot of a bunch of Jim Thompson books, but few of them go as nightmarish in the final pages, and that's saying something when you remember...oh, just about anything else he wrote after the first three books. There's a temptation when reading a book like this to fly through the words just to see in what specific way this one will go wrong, but if you can slow down, do so. There's just so much here that's worth savoring, even if every bit of it is drunk with blood and mean as hell.
This isn't the first book that long-time journalist and author Steve Coll has written about oil, but Private Empire--Coll's years-in-the-making examination of the Exxon corporation--does have a wiry sense of newness to it, a general feeling that, for the first time in years, Coll's carnivorous ability to drain sources whole might have run dry. Whereas his previous string of books has seen Coll structure entire passages around knockout quotes--many of which often turn out to be rollicking strings of hilariously creative expletives--Private Empire leans quieter, with chapters that empty out slowly, like a listing laundry bag. It's a quality that might be, at first, difficult to embrace, but as the pages flit by, it becomes more and more clear: the book can only read like this, a taciturn list of events and decisions, because the subject won't have it any other way.
Coll opens the book in the only way history could ever allow, on that morning in '89 when the companies name became forever entangled with Valdez. Holding back from pat surprises and cheese, his ability to recall that event's feeling--the way the world just seemed to stop and hold its collective breath as so many political consciousnesses were born--makes for an experience rich with feeling for anyone who might remember those events first hand. By the time Coll's starts introducing colorful side characters--the best and first being Admiral Paul Yost, a Coast Guard commandant known most at that point for banning beards amongst all his men, ensuring a legacy of disgust, the book seems like its going down the road so many others have before: courtroom battles, funny lines, the late-night legal revelations popularized in movies.
And then it doesn't. Instead, it chases a company, its hard-as-nails chief executive, and a near-robotic system of discipline that does more to explain why men become libertarians then any political theory ever will. There's a toxic, undeniable logic to this book, one that you can almost sense Coll struggling against. This is a story of a fortress of intelligence and income, of people who have gone further down the road of profit than almost anyone in human history. After decades of writing and reporting about these sorts of people--Coll's previous books have been on the reach of the CIA, the incredible financial success of the Bin Laden empire (as well as the dark monstrosity of its infamous son), the fall of massive corporations and the destruction of the AT&T empire--you can't blame him for the shadow of wonder throughout the book. Exxon is an unusual place, an unusual beast, and at its highest level of staff, there isn't a real comparison. These are men--and it is all men, for reasons the book explicitly details--who dismiss Vladimir Putin publicly, who humiliate Hugo Chavez in New York courts out of a weird sense of fairness, men who respond to an offer of help from then-President George W. Bush with a startled sneer and a violent shaking of heads. And they do it less out of ego--which is what onlookers wrongly assume--then they do it of a faith in efficiency and the cold pursuit of success. As an "aw-shucks, what can you do" Bush put it himself, when an insulted head of state asked the President to put the company in line, "Nobody tells those guys what to do."
It's in the way the company handled climate change--or rather, how it refused to handle climate change--that Coll is most able to shake off the allure of the company's massive success, because it's there that the company is most wrong. It's also there that Coll might have missed an opportunity to write more about the contemporary addiction with the wholesale fabrication of belief that so diseases today's corporate empires, the way that governments and focus groups and gigantic corporations decide their side and then invest all energy into proving its veracity. Year after year, billion after billion, ExxonMobil so thoroughly fucked up what had once been a straightforward issue--humans have culpability in the Earth's changing climate--that a generation grew up believing the debate's origin was in science, when it actually came straight from the bank.
---What follows are some key passages I found interesting. I apologize for not expanding this review into the larger piece the book deserves.
Page 309: "Hardly anyone outside of the industry truly grasped the gargantuan scale of global energy production. Titanic changes in the patterns of energy use over decades would be required to create even modest changes in fuel consumption patterns."
Page 418: During the Khodorkovsky arrest, the Bush administration decided to go after Putin a bit, to fuck with him for embarrassing the US, and they offered this service to ExxonMobil, essentially saying that they'd help put the metal to Vladimir during a contract renegotiation he'd just called for. ExxonMobile sneered back and said "no thanks, not necessary." The implication being that the US governement doesn't scare Putin, which, in light of the last year, seems to be completely accurate.
Page 448: ExxonMobile didn't mess around with subsidized businesses, as a rule, for two reasons: because subsidies could dry up, making it costly, and because one easy way to please voters would be to figure out which subsidized businesses ExxonMobile was in and then take that business away.
Page 472: "It's hard to get used to the fact that Nigerian officials will lie to you straight up".
Page 502: One of the things that makes it hard to understand ExxonMobile's profits is because people don't really understand how big they are. One number he threw out was this: 4000 dollars a second, in taxes.
Page 548: If the US does decide to restrict the sale of Canadian tar sands oil, then ExxonMobile will just sell it to Asia. That's how oil works. The US can't do shit.
Page 615: "The public demanded protection from reckless airplane operators and pushed airline companies into compliance--crashes repelled customers."
Page 617: Every time that the end of oil gets predicted, it's been wrong. Also: Mongolia probably has 152 billion tons of coal, which is enough to run power plants in China for another 50 years.