Victims of Geology

Don Gillmor’s unhappy fictional hero rides the boom and bust cycles of the oil patch.

The oil patch is full of colourful ­characters. Calgary recently lost one of them: James Carl (J.C.) Anderson, a founding baron of the industry. Born in Nebraska and schooled in Texas, J.C. packed all the clichés along with him when he arrived in Alberta in the 1960s—the big heart, the big boots and the big dreams. He started Anderson Exploration with only $400,000 in cash and sold it for a whopping US$4.6 billion in 2001.

Don Gillmor in his latest novel, Long Change, could have modelled his protagonist, Ritt Devlin, on J.C. Anderson, but Devlin’s story is instead the poor cousin’s tale. J.C. enjoyed a devoted family, a long career of successful business enterprises and numerous philanthropic endeavours. No, Gillmor’s Devlin rides the boom and bust patterns of the oil and gas industry in his personal life as well as in his business life, with the bust times outnumbering the boom. In a year when Alberta is experiencing a bust year of suspended projects and massive layoffs, the book is timely.

After leaving an unhappy childhood behind in Texas, marred by an overbearing and abusive Pentacostal father, Devlin drifts north to work on Alberta’s drill rigs. Gillmor has mastered the industry’s language and technology; he seamlessly evokes drill-rig reality with breakout tongs, dog houses, drilling mud and blow-out preventers. The title Long Change refers to a time shift in work schedule: “They got one Saturday night every three weeks shifting from graveyards to afternoons.” Long Change itself then links various story elements together; we are reminded our time on Earth is limited and nothing is permanent. So what then is important? What are the rig workers doing in their moments of leisure? Getting drunk, getting girls, getting religion. Most of Devlin’s time is spent in pursuit of his company, Mackenzie Oil, discovering and producing a big play in the Arctic. For the sake of Mackenzie Oil, he neglects other aspects of his life including family and friendships.

Gillmor’s presentation of the Canadian oil and gas industry’s current state is a pessimistic one of international market instability, corporate greed, overseas corruption and environmental degradation. The only affirmation in the novel, other than Devlin’s own personal growth and self-awareness at the end, is the observation that geological structures supporting our planet are always on the move; change is just around the corner, in the next geologic epoch.

Gillmor endows geology and time with multiple layers of meaning and utilizes them as a narrative frame. He describes humans as coming very late to Earth’s geologic party. We are “the species that always needed another drink,” he writes. Earth might be a better place if we all died away like the dinosaurs; the last sentence of the novel is “It’s time to go.”

Gillmor is the Toronto-based author of six previous works of fiction. He is an accomplished writer who has published across genres from novels such as Mount Pleasant and the award-winning non-fiction series Canada: A People’s History, as well as nine children’s books. He has worked as both a journalist and an editor. His writing experience, his professionalism and his research skills are evident in Long Change. He makes the complications of the oil and gas industry understandable to the layperson, and turns geology into an art form and a religion. It is, he writes, “both history and philosophy, it is the bedrock of science, pun intended. Our only reliable record. Every civilization is buried eventually. Every love is fleeting. Every book forgotten, every king buried. Brought down by hubris or vanity, but a victim, always, to geologic time.”

Geology and its rocks, the continents, even the oil that oozes from the Earth, stand as metaphors for how nothing is static, neither the land, the oceans, nor our time here on Earth. It does not take much of a leap to realize that business ventures, social relationships and politics are also destined to end.

This relationship between death and geologic time resonates in Devlin’s life. The novel’s three sections tracing the arc of his life are named for geological epochs: the Paleocene, the Eocene and the Pleistocene. Think beginning, middle and end of a story structure—only in geologic time humans do not show up until the last period, when we are busy spreading across the planet as various other species are becoming extinct. We are the chicken running around with its head cut off. We are “Larry, Curly and Moe poking each other in the eye.” The author appears to suggest that the Three Stooges are running the oil and gas industry.

While Devlin’s story could be written in terms of a Shakespearean tragedy, his representation of the oil and gas industry is not all negative. There is nostalgia for men of vision and ambition. Devlin’s desire to drill beneath the Beaufort Sea represents a pure love of geology, history and adventure akin to the Franklin Expedition (it too was doomed). Gillmor shows considerable empathy for the rig workers and the thankless work they perform: “Ritt could see the disappointment, the thought of three hours of backbreaking work, frozen through,” Gillmor writes, “working in the dark in the middle of nowhere. Work that was as forlorn as you could ask.” However, there is little sympathy for the boardroom antics, the negotiating of tax credits with the Canadian government, the bribery and corruption involved in working in Africa or Russia. Crimes are committed worldwide in the pursuit of oil production and wealth. Environmental groups or competitors may be behind the bombing of downtown offices or oil and gas facilities. Not even children can escape the negative fallout from “fracking coal seams” that “may or may not” leak an “unregulated cocktail of liquids” that affect neighbouring aquifers.

While Devlin’s personal narrative is tied up in rocks, drill pipe, offshore supertankers, the busy action of drilling and producing oil, the next whiskey, the next wife, his character seems strangely adrift as if the forces of the world are acting upon him, and he drifts along with the continents. He is slowly being crushed by the burden of our contemporary society, our overconsumption. He comes to believe that there are just a few redeeming features of our human presence on this planet such as books, and first love, and even they will eventually turn to dust. Maybe that is why the true-life story of Calgary’s J.C. Anderson is more appealing than Ritt Devlin’s fictional life. At least J.C. Anderson’s story involved family and community, which is how many of us in Alberta like to view the oil patch—with hope for a better future.