In retrospect, it isn’t surprising that there is a market for writing that fits nicely into the niche between the analytical musings of the Economist and the heart-thumping pace of a Jason Bourne thriller.
A little bit populist and much faster paced than traditional writing about current events, while still retaining a seriousness of purpose but steering clear of the polemics of a Michael Moore documentary, the idea for this generation books is fact that reads like fiction. Perhaps it is “a thriller for the CNN generation” or, given reading patterns in the US, just as likely an “Agatha Christie for the CSPAN generation.”
Recent best sellers who handled the balance well guarantee we’ll probably see more of the type released, much as the past few years have seen a rush of financial histories in the wake of the 2008 Financial Crisis.
A new book about Shell Oil’s adventures in accessing their permitted reserves along Alaska’s North Slope in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon fire and spill attempts to live in the same niche. “The Eskimo and the Oil Man” by Bob Reiss is out now from Hachette Group’s Business Plus unit, and bears the feverish subtitle “The Battle at the Top of the World for America’s Future.”
The subject matter sounds roughly as thrilling as a Tuesday special section of the Wall Street Journal, but it is filled with headline-familiar references and edited into punchiness so distinct you can almost hear the television advertising breaks occurring as you whip along.
The trick to doing this sort of thing well lies in the execution, and in not letting the joints show too much. Pulpish novels about serious subjects have done this well in the past, as have the long-form journalism pieces published as books. Those have customarily expected a little more of their reader than this one does.
The book is full of digressions that can be marked by the occasional self-reference. When the author tells you which magazine he was working on assignment from during the chapter, you know which part of his journalistic career the chapter springs from and sometimes the contribution to his framing storyline is less than clear.
Sometimes those digressions are fascinating in their own right; Reiss explains the Law of the Sea Treaty and its peculiar history more clearly than anywhere else I’ve seen, and the sourcing of many of the pieces is impeccable – sadly all too rare in much of business writing.
For the energy professional, there are some thrills peculiar to the sector. Reiss quotes from internal company documents, which always feels transgressive to anyone covering a business often more secretive than the CIA, and he thoroughly understands the context of each branch of the decision tree he charts as the permitting proceeds.
At the heart of the book’s problem as a reading experience is a basic mistrust that the reader will find all this sufficiently interesting. In between the journalism that forms the central thrust of the book has been dropped a great many short paragraphs intended to move the story along but actually result in slowing it down as unnecessary “scene setting” – straight out of a made for TV movie script – saps the book’s energy.
Perhaps the mayor of Barrow, Alaska’s drinking is relevant to the story at hand, but the handling of it turns into parody. “He wasn’t proud of it. But he admitted it….had they looked into his heart they would have seen a man who was still battling personal demons, haunted by ghosts of loved ones and memories of official opposition to every step in the creation of native power.”
In some cases, the attempt to edit the piece into something punchier results in the disorienting and almost hilarious: Entire paragraphs consist of phrases like “Jerry’s agency needed to prepare.” My personal favorite paragraph came on page 70 with “He came from Great Britain.” The spareness of that choice is almost Larkin-eqsue in its simplicity but acts as a full stop on the reader’s progress through the history of Shell’s local communications efforts in Alaska.
It is hard to fault Reiss for this; I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time. As a writer on energy and business myself, it is hard not to wish the author well in sales and movie rights and whatever else makes the writing business go round today. In reading his book though, it would have been nice to have been trusted a little bit more, and “edited down to” just a little less.