by Stanley Crawford (Overlook), reading at Powell's on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne, Monday March 28, 7:30 pm
A friend of mine recently gave his two-year-old niece Crime and Punishment for her birthday. Last year he bought her Ulysses. Believing she, at 20, will appreciate his gifts, he plans to help her amass a library of great novels, each of which hold great importance to him personally. Leon Tuggs, the central character of Stanley Crawford's Petroleum Man, does the exact same thing for his grandchildren--but with vintage model cars.
A conservative Republican billionaire, Leon hand-selects rare replicas of relevant automobiles: The car associated with his very first memory; the car where he first got freaky, the cars that drove him to significant events (births, weddings, business mergers). Petroleum Man is told in an epistolary fashion, via second person, to Leon's grandchildren. By giving them something of monetary and sentimental value, Leon expresses his love. It's a form of intimacy for a man whose advice for his grandson is to "make things your friends. Things will never let you down and you can dispose of them at a moment's notice, without excuse or guilt."
Though intermittently charming, an entire novel in second person becomes tiresome after a while (Italo Calvino's On a Winter's Night a Traveler is the only example of flawless second person prose I'm familiar with). That said, Crawford's writing is in general amusing, and frequently satirical, but never overtly caustic. "Tame" and "safe" describe its satire. Extreme stances are avoided.
Despite a disdain Leon professes for his liberal, democrat son-in-law, Petroleum Man is not really about skewering the opposition. The novel subtly discusses wealth, politics, and child-rearing, but is essentially a breezy tale about one man's journey to billionairedom. Crawford, a garlic farmer-turned-writer in northern New Mexico, is quite removed from such a high life himself, and yet portrays Leon sympathetically, making him seem, despite his fortune, like any concerned grandfather. Crawford also shrewdly portrays the prevalent selfishness associated with altruism. When examined closely, the inherent goodness of any charitable act becomes murky--who benefits more, recipient or giver?