Book review: Great American Outpost, by Maya Rao
One could travel there by taking the interstate all the way across North Dakota, then going up Highway 85, which formed the backbone of the oilfield and ran 1,479 miles from El Paso to the Canadian border. But to really understand the place, a traveler ought to make a series of northern and westerly turns from Jamestown and its iconic buffalo sculpture, into long and green hollows of feral quiet that ran hundreds of miles. Get out in some smudge of a town like Harvey to fill the tank again – shiver in the eyes of stillness that beamed over that endless expanse – retreat to the car as if to escape forces that would pull a human interloper into the fissures of the earth. Remember this upon arriving at the western flank of the state, where trucks and rigs and men ran roughshod and nature was the trespasser.
Between 2014 and 2016, Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter Maya Rao immersed herself in the new American oil boom, living and observing life and the changes in the Bakken oilfields of North Dakota. She even worked as a cashier at a truck stop, this being one of the central locations for everyday commerce and connection in the sparse landscape of the Bakken. It’s a strange new frontier environment, where rents have skyrocketed, cashiers have to be paid a minimum of $14 an hour if there’s any hope of keeping them around and even then, turnover thanks to richer prospects is high. And a new breed of opportunistic fortune-seekers, some with honest intentions and others either running from dark pasts or with shadowy plans afoot, flock there in droves.
The product of this immersion is a narrative nonfiction account drawing on interviews and experiences with the myriad characters she lived, worked with, or got to know, coupled with her keen observations, detailed descriptions of life and the oddities particular to the area. And some detailed reporting on the scandals and crimes that have emerged from this new wild (mid)west. It draws a down-on-their-luck type, with the rumor that there’s $17,000 a month to be made drilling oil. Along with that kind of money comes either shrewd entrepreneurial types or very unscrupulous ones, and Rao profiles a mix of both.
These entrepreneurs include on one end of the spectrum the strippers drawn there to entertain bored, overworked men in an environment of very few women, to straight up conners like Larry Hogan on the other. Hogan was a Brit running a Ponzi scheme: “As complaints mounted, the Securities and Exchange Commission sued the company for running a Ponzi scheme. It was one of the largest securities fraud cases the SEC prosecuted in connection with America’s modern fracking boom. Investigators found the bank accounts drained. Nine hundred and eighty investors from sixty-six countries lost $62 million.”
I went into this knowing next to nothing about the region or its oil drilling economy and it all just seemed so surreal, also thanks in part to Rao’s storytelling style. She plays up the little things, the personal elements that make for a good story, excellently portraying a place that’s easy to conjure up in your mind’s eye thanks to her attention to detail. One little thing I absolutely loved was how she focused on food – what she ate, hurriedly and often in the cab of a tanker truck, what the rich were cooking, and the artery-clogging fried meal specials that oil workers were offered at truck stops and bars – it might sound silly, but this was my favorite part of the book.
I found little more comfort than when the lights of a truck stop were shining far ahead like a lodestar. Transience turns so many of the old routines into open questions – where to sleep? to eat? to shower? to think? – and the American truck stop bundles all the answers to life into one massive building. Comfort is in the generic: a sad sack song from the eighties playing over the speaker, pizza and chicken fingers from the freezer, coffee machines and packets of French vanilla creamer.
It’s just one little example, also partially explaining her draw to the truck stop where she worked. I love this kind of writing. Either consciously or subconsciously she juxtaposes the food served to or preferred by the oil workers, like the aforementioned and the high-fat, high-calorie heart attack specials at truck stops meant to provide sustenance and energy for longer, with the ritzy food served at dinner parties by the region’s profiteering rich. It was fascinating insight into the societal divides in this strange economy.
She also captures something of the loneliness and desolation inherent to this region and to the nature of the work – the long hours, few women, isolated landscapes.
The attention to detail is a wonderful aspect of this book, and what gives readers unfamiliar with the region a clear vision of the place and the strange circumstances.
“People think New York’s fast-paced…get in line,” said one customer. “You want fast, it’s fast around here.” North Dakota produced more oil than any state except Texas, but it was second to none in hustle and spirit.
Rao often references history or literature of the Gold Rush, comparing that historical westward surge with this modern one, and the parallels are certainly fascinating.
The book is written in a narrative nonfiction style, but with a heavy dose of the area’s economics mixed in. This is to be expected, but some of it detracted from the stories for me. Which may be on me – I was interested in the stories of the larger-than-life characters and bizarre circumstances, but for these to exist, there had to be the special economics of the oilfield and the economy grown around it. I just found my attention wandering significantly during sections that focused heavily on this, or the connected hedge funds and investments, these kind of topics.
But elsewhere, Rao has a great talent for storytelling and describing the region and the feeling it conveys so strongly.
I had a misguided tendency in the Bakken of using mainstream logic instead of anticipating total absurdity.
Equal parts character study in absurdity, personalities and economy, it’s surely the best study of America’s 21st century oil boom. It just wasn’t quite what I needed to draw me in to a subject that I didn’t have previous interest or knowledge in.
My review: 3/5 BUT if you’re already interested in the topic of oil drilling, energy economies or what happened in the Bakken specifically, you’re sure to get much more from it.
Great American Outpost:
Dreamers, Mavericks, and the Making of an Oil Frontier
by Maya Rao
published April 24, 2018 by Public Affairs
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.
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