Thursday, May 04, 2006


My historical novel about how we became addicted to oil is now available at

and here is the first review:

Review: OIL IN THEIR BLOOD by Herman K. Trabish

Reviewer: Mark S. Friedman

In THE END OF OIL, Paul Roberts said “…ours is a culture of energy illiterates.” OIL IN THEIR BLOOD, a superb new historical fiction by Herman K. Trabish, addresses that illiteracy by putting the development of our addiction into a story about real people, giving them a sweeping historical context and giving his readers a chance to think about how our addiction happened. Owning and controlling oil, the center of the modern political and economic endeavor, is the context. Trabish’s prose restricts itself in the finest way to simple, straightforward storytelling and he tells his stories through his characters.

The book is the answer a matriarch gives to an interviewer who asks her to pass judgment on the oil industry because her family was in it from the beginning. She clearly speaks for Trabish when she suggests the oil industry, like history itself, is easier to tell stories about than to judge. Her presence is a unifying device for the book but the construction of the device focuses attention on the stories, making them symbolic even while they are literal. Instead of simply judging the oil industry, she and Trabish let the reader experience it and come to their own conclusions.

She begins by telling the story of her parents in western Pennsylvania in the post-Civil War era when oil first became big business. We see teamsters and farmers and drillers fighting each other while big money interests work behind the scenes to take control. We see a fictional version of the first pipeline being built and the first race to market between competing refiners. We also see an amateur baseball game played by 1860s rules, a paralleling mechanism recurring throughout the book. Trabish tells this part of the story like a John Ford western and his characters are classic American melodramatic heroes, heroines and villains.

In the second part of the book, Trabish’s matriarch tells the tragic story of the second generation and reveals how she came to be part of the tales. We see oil become an international commodity, valued as a lubricant and illuminant, traded on Wall Street and sought from London to Baku to Mesopotamia to Borneo. Trabish’s baseball subplot compares the growth and organization of the oil business to the growth of baseball from an amateur competition to a professional sport and cutthroat business, a fascinating reflection of our current president’s personal career. There is an unforgettable image near the center of the story when a group of international oil entrepreneurs are talking on a Baku street:

“What is the point?” demanded Abrams, in a low quiet voice that demanded they listen. “Big money has this tied up.”

Rhoades stopped them, held a finger to his lips to silence them and waved for them to follow him into a muddy alley. There, he grabbed a splintery shaft of a broken two-by-four and drew a big circle around them in the mud of the alley. “This is the world.”

Completing the circle, he shifted the others out of his way, to the world’s edge, walked to near its center and made an x-mark. “Here is Baku, the capital city of the greatest oil deposits outside of Pennsylvania.”

He took a tiny step toward them. “Until a few years ago, it was more expensive to get oil from here to here…” He made another x-mark beside the first one and looked up at them in the dim light, “…that is, from Baku to Batum, than to bring it all the way from here.”

He walked to them and positioned Henry at a point just inside the outer edge of the circle. “This is Pennsylvania.” He grabbed Sidney by an arm and pulled him to halfway between Henry and the x-marks. “This is Europe.” He grabbed Abrams, pulled him along, went back to the center and drew two lines between the x-marks.

They go on talking out plans to build petroleum empires. This Trabish at his best, portraying good and bad men, some good men who will do bad and some bad men who will do good, all laying plans for wealth and power in the muddy, oily alley of a tiny ancient town in the middle of everywhere.

There is a major change in the storytelling pace as Trabish takes his story into Persia and Mesopotamia for the first time. He offers descriptions of places and prayers. It is as if he is telling the reader to take a good look because something is going to happen here. As his flawed, driven protagonist becomes an expression of American oil’s worst imperialist intentions, he moves ineluctably toward a tragic end. Because Part I was about triumphant American heroes, the tragedy here is entirely unexpected, despite Trabish’s repeated allusions to other stories that do not end well, from Casey At The Bat to Hamlet.

In the book’s third and final section, World War I looms. Baseball takes a back seat to early auto racing and the modernity, born of oil energy, is about to explode. This section opens with an exciting account of the French Grand Prix of 1914, one of the most exciting races of all time:

The sound of the engines neared. First, there was dust, then the Peugeot, then Boillot, bent half dead and burning like an irrefutable force at the wheel of the rattling, grunting, roaring car. The grandstands erupted. It was as if the spirit of the French driver and the French people were willing the car forward.

And, then, Lautenschlager’s white Mercedes came roaring into the stretch right behind the Peugeot. Both cars hurtled down the roadway between the grandstands. To Sam, the noise was enormous, almost intolerable, the French masses, thousands, tens of thousands, screaming for Boillot, the few in the Mercedes pit screaming for Lautenschlager.

While Part 1 was a tale of true love and Part 2 was a tale of tragic love, here modern love struggles with lust just as it seems overwhelmed by cynicism and violence:

They made a Christmas Eve feast surpassing Thanksgiving. Afterwards, the dark sensuous Ida Rubenstein again gave Sam the gift of her wantonness. Together the two of them spent the night shaming Santa and, on Christmas morning, she gave him the gift of promise by inviting him to join her for New Year’s Eve. Together, they rang out 1914 and rang in hopes for a happier 1915. They began with an entertainment extravaganza of hilarity and decadence at the Moulin Rouge and ended with an erotic escapade that included a dancer friend of Ida’s and taught Sam adventurous new possibilities of polyamorous delight.

In the last unfoldings of Trabish’s epic tale, there is a literal and unforgettable collision between a cavalry troop and an army troop in a truck. It is an unforgettable image of the greater tragedy that defies elaboration. But Trabish has something more than tragedy to offer in this book and so his story moves beyond the horrible destruction of the Romanian oilfields, the worst manmade ecological disaster in history before Saddam Hussein burned the Kuwaiti oilfields in 1991. His lonely, confused young protagonist suffers worse and worse horrors, until—unexpectedly—he finds a reason to go on, something a review cannot reveal.

Finally, as if the question of oil and its meaning to the protagonist and to us as readers and citizens of western society must be settled, the oil industry comes back into the story in a way that is beyond good and bad, beyond melodrama and tragedy, just simply is. Trabish resolves the fate of his characters but leaves it to his readers to decide if there is a reason for faith, if there is something the oil industry offers western civilization and democratic liberalism.

Along the way, Trabish offers his readers a much greater awareness of oil industry history and how we became addicted to oil. And awareness, Paul Roberts said in THE END OF OIL, “…may be the first tentative step toward building a more sustainable energy economy. Or it may simply mean that when our energy system does begin to fail, and we begin to lose everything that energy once supplied, we won’t be so surprised.”

Oil In Their Blood by Herman K. Trabish, 498 pages, Lulu Press. Available as a print on demand trade paperback for $20.78 plus shipping or as a downloadable E-book for $6.25 at and at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Borders and other on-line booksellers. Not available in retail bookstores.