The Inquiring Reader
Reviews, critiques, and thoughts

The Good Hand

A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown

by Michael Patrick F. Smith

reviewed by Jon Duelfer

Buy through the publisher Penguin Random House

Oil, refined into gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel, makes cars drive, planes fly, and ships sail. It powers submarines and spacecraft, sends shellfish to Colorado, medicine to Liberia, and soldiers and supplies to war zones around the world. It powers our school buses and gunships, ambulances and tanks. But it does more than transport us. It heats our homes. It illuminates our nights. We eat off it. Petroleum is contained in the glaze on our chine, the finish on our tables, the linoleum on our counters, the tile on our floors. It wraps around us in the fabric that clothes our naked bodies, in the jewelry that adorns our necks and hands and fingers, in the balm that soothes our cracked lips, in the makeup that defines the contours of our faces. And it is inside of us. The syringes and the pills that delivery medicine into our systems are made from petroleum. Synthetic ammonia, derived from a process using refined oil, is an essential ingredient in fertilizer. Without it, farming on an industrial scale would not be possible. It is in our food. We eat it. Oil is so prevalent in every aspect of our existence that it has become all but invisible to the vast majority of people who need it simply to live. (p. 8)

Michael Patrick F. Smith’s The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown takes a look at a rough, ragged, and masculine side of America. Smith confronts the good and the bad head-on, but hopes to show us that if we peel off the surface layer, underneath is something admirable and meaningful that is well-worth holding on to.

He focuses on concepts that many wish to ignore: fossil fuels and masculinity. These have been, currently are, and will be critical parts of our way of life in America. The course of history is changing – climate activists are pushing for alternative forms of energy and feminists are reworking our perception of the traditional male – but change takes time. Smith’s memoir shows us what is in the here and the now in many parts of our country today.

Idealism at some point must give way to pragmatism. Parts of our world, shown in the oil fields and towns of North Dakota, work radically different than our imagination in ivory towers or metropolitan bubbles. Smith, having grown up in difficult life circumstances to say the least, wants people to see what parts of our society are really like.

And his book is almost incredible. It is decent and well-worked, but Smith had an opportunity to make it something larger. He focused too little on the aspects of his work, intertwined his personal life a bit too much, and over-emphasized the outrageous or wacky qualities of his characters. His humorous tone dominated what could have been a deeply moving and serious reflection on migrant workers. It does, however, make it a pleasure to read, which may have been his primary goal (or that of the publisher).

I heard about The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown from Sarah Smarsh’s review in The Atlantic. In her review, she focused mainly on Smith’s relationship with females, and makes a very good point that they are merely “passing references.” This is true, and very important to hear her perspective, but an important note is that Smith encountered no female coworkers in the oil fields, which is the primary target of the book.

The Story

The memoir starts en medias res as Smith travels out to find some work on the oil fields in Williston, North Dakota. He has driven from Brooklyn, New York in an old Chevy Blazer and sleeps in cheap motels or in the back of his car until he can find a place.

He finds a spot for rent in what he calls a flophouse: essentially somebody’s house that they have packed with bunk-beds and mattresses on the floor where any number of people, most likely illegally, live together until they can find a place of their own. Rent is outrageous due to the oil boom, and Smith pays hundreds of dollars more to sleep on a mattress on the floor than people pay for mortgages in my own hometown.

It makes you wonder why Smith would do this – he seemed to have a decent job in the city. Is it for glory, money, fame? I started to question his motives: was this book simply a staged event for him to produce a piece of writing? That thought still hasn’t left my mind even after finishing the book, but even if it were the case, Smith would be the person I would want to write it.

In between chapters of meeting a bunch of rag-tag alcoholics, drug addicts, hard-workers, and dedicated immigrants coming in and out of the flophouse, Smith gives a bit of his own backstory. His father was violent, abusive, and his family was on the edge of poverty. His childhood was rough, to say the very least, but not uncommon in rural parts of our country.

He moved to the city many across the world do: for school, work, passion, and the general pursuit of life. But he was struggling to get before becoming a secretary for awhile, and then finally realizing that he hated his job. He sought out a style of life similar to what he grew up in: rugged and hard-working America.

This, he claims, is his motive for moving out to the oil boomtowns of North Dakota. He hangs around the flophouse for awhile, meeting a bunch of migrant workers like him, and finally landing a job in the oil fields. He starts to work.

The Oil Fields

In the oil fields, Smith is a greenhorn: a worker given an identifying green hat for safety precautions. In an environment of toxic masculinity, he’s treated like a “worm.” Nobody shows him how to do the job properly, but they immediately get enraged and abusive when he doesn’t do it correctly. Smith feels oddly comfortable in this situation, which reminds him of his relationship with his father, and eventually learns how to become a “Good Hand.”

There is a wild array of characters that are both positive and negative influences on Smith during his journey. Champ is the owner of the first flophouse, generously giving Smith a place to stay yet growing more and more sour over time. Power and control go to his head: he believes everybody is living there thanks to him and his “generosity.” To be fair, he is offering a needed service, albeit under appalling circumstances.

Smith befriends Jessie, a boy in his twenties staying upstairs in the house. Although life pushes them apart, he later befriends an ex-convict named Huck, with whom he becomes very close. A waitress at a diner they frequent even asks if they are brothers for how closely they interact.

Smith gets to know more members of the oil crew: the Wildebeast, the Viking, Big Country. All of these characters are ephemeral, passing, but very real and have a significant influence on Smith’s experience. I sincerely believe every one of them is just as Smith depicts them, but I think he sometimes overplays their personalities for the sake of writing, and that pulls away from his narrative.

Most of the men are portraits of traditional masculinity: angry, violent, reserved, playful. But many value the brotherhood that also comes with the masculine role. Smith is trying to say not all things are bad: there are good and bad parts to tradition, but sometimes, who are we to judge which ones are right or wrong? Out in North Dakota, morals fall being the pursuit of making a living.

He generally describes the Wildebeast as an angry, frustrated person, but then observes him with his kids and sees how gentle he can be. We cannot judge a person simply for the interactions we have with them, for they are bound within the existing environment.

There is a “cult of masculinity” in a sense: people who aren’t necessarily a certain way must become so to survive in the environment. Smith at one points recalls a memory where he sees a woman in one of the Williston bars and immediately thinks she’s a prostitute. The environment is shaping him to its will.

Oil Itself

The most important aspect of this book, of course, is oil. Its production, its use, the jobs, the wealth, the poverty. Williston was entirely transformed because of the oil boom.

Smith points out that crime is many times higher in Williston than the national average. Often for field work, nobody does a background check. Anybody can work as long as they come to work – and that can attract a very interesting crowd.

On the other hand, Smith writes in awe of oil, and rightfully so. It built the modern world. It provides jobs for millions of Americans. It is huge part of our nation’s wealth. No matter your ideology, these facts are indisputable.

Of course, determinism in any form is a tricky subject. Yes, oil has made the world into what it is today. But without it, would there have been difference substances, maybe synthetic ones, invented years later but maybe less damaging to the Earth? What if the vasts amounts of money invested in drilling, equipment, and wars was dedicated instead to investing in solar, wind, hydrogen, and nuclear power?

The fact that the growth of the modern economy and society depended on the capital of a small number of oil barons and the appalling labor conditions in boomtowns across the country is not something we should have nostalgia for. Believing in the status quo because it’s simply the-way-things-are is a fallacy. Of course, many would argue that the contrary is utopian, imagining a world that doesn’t really exist, but herein lies the fate of many people.

Reading memoirs like Smith’s is crucial to understanding the current state of the world. We can believe in renewables all we want (and should), but between The Dark Side of the Congo’s Cobalt Rush necessary for producing lithium batteries (which power all “renewable energy systems essentially) and the fact that the multi-trillion (or more) infrastructure for extracting oil is already built and well-established with millions of people dependent on it on a daily basis, there really is no other option in the immediate future. So the goal is to understand and ameliorate the conditions in which we live, not imagine a future world far in the distance.

This has very real consequences in modern politics, specifically related to Biden’s infrastructure plan which includes funding for the oil and gas industry and has Joe Manchin leading many important initiatives. Progressive liberals throw their hands up at this, but they also refuse to accept government-driven initiates like the Green New Deal necessary for a shift to a real, egalitarian green economy. Smith writes:

    New York State would ban fracking in 2015. Meanwhile, the state’s consumption of natural gas, produced by fracking, would continue to rise. This not-in-my-backyard brand of environmentalism results in a fracking boom in neighboring Pennsylvania, and raises worldwide emissions by adding miles to the trucking routes that feed New York’s power plants.
    Essentially, environmental activists in New York would protect their state’s consumers from the destructive results of their consumption, all the while adding to the degradation of the planet – the moral equivalent, in my eyes, of voting to support a war and signing up the neighbor’s kid to fight it. (p. 439)

It’s not that people are wrong to call for leaving fossil fuels underground (I agree wholeheartedly with doing as much as we can to do so), but rather the method of demanding change is contradictory. Metropolitan areas use the vast amount of energy resources and simply aren’t aware of the production costs and what this means for society, especially for those in rural areas with economies that have grown dependent on energy production. Smith writes the following passage when he is back in New York City.

    I’m soaking it up, this chance to be a raconteur, this attention I’m receiving for my work, this opportunity to tell the tale. What I do in Williston lands here, I realize, taking in the elegant woodwork and the chandeliers. New York City reaps the benefits of labor done thousands of miles away on the desolate plains of North Dakota, the labor I do. I feel proud. That is what it means to be a good hand: to do meaningful work.
    And how rare is that? At this point in history, in the lives of most Americans? To spend a day doing work that matters?
    It’s a diamond.
    But as for the result of that work? It appears to be like a vision, the strange and startling fact: New York benefits from the oil boom far more than Williston ever will. No one here realizes that. Nobody even considers it. Here in this West Village gastropub. Look at them. Everything they enjoy. Every. Single. Thing. They get it from me. They get it from me and a group of the toughest, meanest motherfuckers I have met in my life. Men they wouldn’t like, men they look down on, invisible men they will never see in a state they dismiss as a flyover. They owe it all to the hands. All of it. (p. 306-307)

Final Thoughts

The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown is very nearly a fantastic book. There are times when it is deeply moving, thoughtful, philosophical, and inspirational. But there are others when it looses track of its mission and the pages seem heavy to turn.

Smith’s work here should not be downplayed. He is hoping to reach across a divided America, from New York City to the plains of North Dakota, to understand what binds us. We live in a nation with limited resources, but we are in this together and must figure out how we want this century to play out. He even makes comparisons between NYC and Williston at times, hoping to show they are not actually that different:

Both towns are job, status, and money obsessed. What do you do? What’s your work? How much do you make? Where’s your office? Where do you live? How many rooms? Do you have roommates? In no other city or town have I ever experienced these as the first questions asked by complete strangers upon first meeting. In New York City and Williston, that is the custom.

But the truth is, they are different, and they always have been. Empathy for what people are going through – for those who light our homes and make possible the things we consume – is crucial. Without understanding “the other side,” how can we even pretend to know what is right for the future of our country?

I’m from a small town in North Carolina and grew up in a working-class family in a largely conservative area (nearly ~80% voted Trump in the 2020 presidential election). People are not fools or gravely mistaken for voting Trump like many may believe. It could be that they saw somebody who resembles the rough, rugged, masculine side of America as it is in many places, and that they saw something familiar – at least more familiar than the party that seems beholden to money, wealth, academia, and finance.

Although I believe Smith fell short in what this memoir could have been, it’s a great piece of writing. It’s unfair to put the burden on his shoulders to solve the existential divide in our country. It has been around for centuries and it is not going to be solved anytime soon.