Oily and Mean
Petroleum ManStanley Crawford
(Overlook Press · hardcover · $24)
Leon Tuggs is lord of all he surveys, mostly because he never leaves the bubble of his possessions. Tuggs is closing in on his goal of becoming a Petroleum Man, one of the godlike creatures who finally obliterates nature with a triumphant, globe-swaddling blanket of consumer goods. But it's lonely being a multi-billionaire if you can't wring admiration from your nearest and dearest.
Crawford wrote Petroleum Man in the form of Tuggs' journal, which Tuggs will present to his two grandchildren when they reach the appropriate age. Each entry documents one of the custom-fabricated model cars he presents to the children on important occasions. The 35 models match vehicles Tuggs has owned during his life, and each triggers the story of a Tuggs triumph, with lengthy discourse on his personal philosophy for the edification of the children.
The bulk of Tuggs' fortune came from inventing the Thingie®, a product so successful that "on average the office worker and car driver and a domestic partner at work in a typical kitchen either touches or looks at or otherwise interacts with a Thingie® every nineteen seconds during his waking life ..." The Thingie® is never described; I envision an all-purpose cross between a cell phone, Binkie, paper clip and condom.
Stanley Crawford, who lives in Dixon, N.M., has gained an impressive reputation as an essayist and memoirist. Many of his previous themes return with a satirical twist in Petroleum Man. While Mayordomo: Chronicle of an Aceqia in Northern New Mexico documents the value of communal effort, Leon Tuggs worships an individuality pushed to the point of toxicity. A Garlic Testament: Seasons on a Small New Mexico Farm begins with a condemnation of America's insane distribution systems for produce, but Tuggs delights in ever longer shipping routes. The River in Winter: New and Selected Essays explores the endless depth and complexity of "the simple life," while Tuggs uses the phrase as a synonym for vaporous idiocy.
Like Lauren Weisberger's chick-lit hotcake, The Devil Wears Prada, Petroleum Man relies on the author's skill in depicting an utterly self-absorbed human monster without driving the reader away in disgust. Crawford's spectacularly awful Tuggs pulses with vitality and smug self-assurance. He's very entertaining as long as one doesn't think about his real-life doppelgängers.
The plot of Petroleum Man isn't much more than a coatrack for Crawford's observations, but the honed elegance of his prose and wickedness of his wit keep the novel bubbling along. I just wish it had included nice line drawings of the cars.