PORTRAIT IN OIL by Charles Fox


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The career of US oil-man Tom Scott, 1933-1974--as narrated, in a disjointed, episodic fashion, by Scott's ambivalent protÉgÉ Carey Nichols. . . who has lots of romantic/political angst along the way. In 1933 Carey--23, Oxford-educated--is heading from his native England to Mexico in search of adventure; in L.A., however, he meets youngish millionaire Tom--and is soon hired on as a Keynesian economist/adviser. At first Carey, dazzled by the Gatsby-ish Tom, eagerly supports his boss' dealings (takeovers, antitrust actions, negotiations for Mideast sources via the slimy Gulbenkians)--especially since Tom seems like a revolutionary in his battle for independence against the ""Seven Sisters."" Soon, however, leftwing-ish Carey is wrestling with his principles; he also wrestles with his feverish passion for Tom's wife #2 Joanna. (""Like two dogs who haven't eaten for a week, we fell upon each other, a slather of tongues and frenzied grasping."") So Carey goes to Mexico, supports oil-worker strikes there, winds up killing a sadistic foreman. Continuing as Tom's off/on adviser, he's horrified by Tom's dealings with the Nazis. During and after the war Carey works for British Petroleum in the Mideast, later helping Tom to negotiate oil-rights with King Ibn Saud. Meanwhile, for murky reasons, Carey's affair with Joanna (long-divorced from Tom) never can get into full gear; Carey's daughter (from a brief marriage) is killed in a car accident--a gratuitous dollop of unearned tragedy. And, in the last few chapters, the focus abruptly shifts to old, dying Tom's assorted children and possible heirs to his billions: one son commits suicide; another is heavy into drugs, maybe murder and incest too; plus--in tacky-saga tradition--Carey discovers the true parentage of Joanna's daughter Alice. . . and must save her from low-life drug addiction. As multi-generational melodrama, however, this long novel is much too ragged and narrowly focused. (All the characters except Carey remain stick-figures--including oil man Tom.) As an oil-biz history, it's chunked with detail but fragmented and confusing. And it's far too busy and sprawling to work as a close-up study of unengaging wimp Carey--despite periodic bursts of introspection. (""Had I ever lived? Had I ever been anything more than a mortal subject of my father's Victorian conditioning and a victim of my own ambivalence?"") Too fidgety for sagalovers, then, and too creaky to interest those who were impressed by Fox's outdoors/survival novel, The Noble Enemy.

Pub Date: Sept. 28th, 1984
Publisher: Doubleday