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Oil Drilling With a Human Face : OIL NOTES by Rich Bass (Houghton Mifflin: $16.95; 171 pp.)

July 09, 1989|Robert Kanigel | Kanigel writes often on science and technology and

Great idea: Who better to tell of the rousing, romantic world of oil discovery, of wildcats and roustabouts and instant millionaires, of the black science of finding liquid gold trapped underground for a hundred million years, than a petroleum geologist who can write? No need to confine himself to geology and drilling rigs, either. Include personal stuff too-- humanize it. The geologist at home, as it were--off with his artist girlfriend, driving down the back roads of the rural South. . . .

Great idea. And now, Rick Bass' "Oil Notes" in hand, we can weigh the results of the experiment: It didn't work.

Bass could have brought it off. A real working geologist, like his father, he knows his oil; he hunts it for a living. And he's surely got the writerly gifts to tell about it, as we see, for example, in his account of core point: "While drilling, the bit grinds up underground rock into flake-shaped pieces brought to the surface by circulating mud. Analyzed, these often suffice to tell the geologist what he's encountered a mile down."

But sometimes, as when near the oil, the geologist needs a closer reading. So he orders his men to take up the drill bit and replace it with a hollow tube perhaps 30 feet long laced with diamonds at one end; back underground, it cuts out a neat core of earth, the way a cookie cutter punches out cookie dough.

"They bring the barrel up . . . and knock the core out by banging on the side of the barrel with hammers," writes Bass. "The core slides out like a skinny pole, wet and steaming, broken in places, but they piece it back together and wrap it quickly in foil to keep all the oils and gases and fluids trapped in it from escaping." These are then analyzed.

But it's a big step to do all this--and expensive. Ten thousand bucks for the diamond-studded barrel alone--which you use only once. And the drilling has to stop. And you have to make sure you've got people on hand ready to rush off and analyze the samples. So picking the right time to do it--establishing the core point--is crucial. "Drilling, drilling, drilling, watching, and then knowing, or thinking you know, that you are right on top of the formation you're interested in: a foot above it or less. Son, you had better be right."

Well, all this is great. Why, then, isn't there more of it? And that's just the problem: "Oil Notes" hasn't enough oil.

What it has instead is the author's loose-fitting white T-shirt, his girlfriend Elizabeth, the big-antlered deer he sees, the biscuits and milk gravy he eats, his pet likes and dislikes. "I love sitting on tractors and smelling their old oil smell," he tells us. "It sounds as if I'm drinking beer but I'm not; it's really an orange soda, and the March sun going down is still warm on my left elbow."

There's a merciless self-indulgence at work here, pumping out "telling details" not telling at all, but merely details. We care about the contents of the author's office in Jackson, Miss., not nearly as much as he thinks we should. He concludes his six-page inventory of erasers, newspaper clippings, oil exploration magazines, maps, arrowheads and bottles of antacid with the throwaway line: "It is a good place to work"--as if that justifies subjecting the reader to it. A paragraph or two, maybe. But six pages? He prefaces it all with a question: "Do you want to know what my office looks like?"--but, of course, never offers the opportunity to say, "No."

It's not just that the personal details fail to enhance the book; they detract from it. At one point, the author starts to tell how some geologists, charged with eking out all they can from existing fields, seek never to drill a dry hole; while others, who hunt new fields and know they'll often come up dry, "don't especially care about being right or not, and don't particularly mind being less than careful with people's hopes. We're leaving the realm of geology here and going into the abrasions of sociology."

Then, abruptly: ". . . wind on my porch this morning, and a mockingbird fighting something--John Prine spinning on my turntable . . ." followed by his half-hearted return to a distinction that could have been developed, but now winds down to nothing within the space of a paragraph.

We are supposed to experience links between the seeming trifles of Bass' personal life and the profundities of oil. Too often, though, the links are feeble, or non-existent, forged from air: "We lay in the hammock together today. Her yellow shirt was the color of a banana. I didn't go to work until 10. I was burned out. I didn't lie, didn't call in sick. Just told them I'd be in around 10."

"You can't find oil if you're not honest," he decides.

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