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Know the West

All fracked up: A debut memoir wrestles with toxic masculinity in the oil fields

Michael Patrick F. Smith’s ‘The Good Hand’ offers sharp observations on North Dakota’s extraction industry.

 

During the Great Recession, one rare economic exception was Williston, North Dakota, in the heart of the Bakken oil patch, where a fracking boom drew thousands of jobseekers. Fast-food joints paid up to $15 an hour, while oilfield hands could earn $200 a day. Prices skyrocketed. The population more than doubled within five years, causing a housing shortage that forced newcomers to sleep in tents, cars or flophouses. Or they piled into trailers corralled together, the notorious “man camps,” a term evoking fistfights, overdoses and sexual abuse. Crime rates soared. The region was overrun.

Set in and around Williston in 2013, Michael Patrick F. Smith’s debut memoir, The Good Hand, critiques the damaging effects of toxic masculinity on women, families and on men themselves, together with the personal, social and environmental costs of oil and gas extraction. In the oil fields, men like Smith perform dangerous, backbreaking labor, but they also enact a kind of relentless white masculine posturing that punishes any sign of difference or weakness. In immersing himself in their world, Smith excavates the devastating masculine tropes in his own family life. In the end, though, he can't shake his own affection for these damaged, sometimes violent, men, whose respect he craves despite himself.

The Good Hand skillfully braids together scenes of life in Williston — in the oil fields, in the bars, at the three-bedroom townhouse Smith shares with 11 others — with historical dives into the region’s Indigenous and settler-colonial history, and with troubled memories of the terror his abusive father inflicted on his family.

Krystal Quiles / High Country News

Smith is a musician who cut his teeth on Sam Shepard’s plays and the music of Woody Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. In Brooklyn, his home for several years, Smith worked various gigs to sustain his artistic endeavors as a folksinger, actor and playwright. But he didn’t go to Williston to entertain or to make art. He came to make money as a “swamper,” clocking 15-hour days helping set up and tear down oil rigs. The work turns out to be less about filling his bank account than salving childhood wounds. “My dad never taught me how to do anything,” writes Smith. “He didn’t know how to do much himself. This was part of my obsession with becoming a good hand. I wanted to become a person who knew how to work, who knew how to accomplish tasks, who could get things done.” 

In time, Smith does become “a good hand,” a quasi-spiritual concept as he defines it: “A person who does honest work to the best of their ability every day and who offers that work to the world as a living prayer.” 

Few people achieve this distinction, in Smith’s estimation. It’s not necessarily the domain of men; Smith’s sister, for example, earns the title as a dedicated nurse. But bound up with his reverence for hard work is Smith’s mythologizing of the men who do it. Smith connects the men he meets on oil rigs to men on battlefields, such as his great-uncles (“true WWII heroes”) and his father, a paratrooper during the Korean War.

“I lusted for that kind of action,” Smith writes, “I thought that if I went through what he went through I would gain not just insight into his life but respect for him, too.” Though working on an oil field is a far cry from facing open combat, Smith finds that during his nine months in the oil patch, he is able to inhabit a counterfactual reality. He follows the road not taken, becoming, like a method actor, one kind of hardworking man.

But assimilation comes with costs. For the first few months, Smith is the butt of every joke. Co-workers threaten to arrange for him to suffer a terrible “accident” after he’s exposed for having voted for Barack Obama. Smith finds himself compromising his values every second of the day, in a world that discourages asking questions about other men’s pasts. 

Smith finds himself compromising his values every second of the day, in a world that discourages asking questions about other men’s pasts.

What’s more, he blurs the line between bearing witness to, and becoming complicit in, other men’s disturbing actions. Smith chastises himself for enjoying “the company of unabashed bigots,” remaining mostly silent around “their casual, constant, continuing faucet drip of racism,” including when his landlord lies to a Black family about a room’s availability.

Smith’s eventual attempts to address his own racist complicity are weak, coming long after, and at a safe distance from, the world of oil rigs and rough men: He recalls marching in a Black Lives Matter protest after the police murdered Freddie Gray as a profound experience that leads him to “process the racism in my own heart, born of my own complicity, willful ignorance, and shame.”

But ultimately, it’s a muddled experience. Smith returns to New York calling himself a “loose collection of bad habits.” The romantic trappings the author succumbs to by elevating his newfound, if short-lived, brotherhood above its worst instincts overshadow many of his early critiques of masculine trauma. “Even though I’m not a lifer,” Smith concedes, “all of these men are my tribe.”  

Jason Christian is a writer and educator from Oklahoma, now based in New Orleans. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

Note: This story has been updated to correct the author’s name.