No one captures the mind of a control freak like Stanley Crawford. The narrating paterfamilias of Some Instructions (1985) organizes his directives to wife and children in perfect deadpan, a very funny mix of precision and clueless self-regard in which even the most mundane chore gets amped to metaphor. Item II.6, “Large and Small Toys,” advises his son: “See your toys, which are both the toys of your room and the toys of your Childhood, as representatives of the larger objects which you will have to manipulate later in life, so that in manipulating them now, in reduced scale, you can slowly build up the experience necessary to manipulate them later in your life, in true scale.”
Petroleum Man, Crawford’s zippy new satire, expands II.6 into a worldview. Whereas the prescriptive figure in Some Instructions leads a simple life revolving around home and garden, here the voice is one of fantastic wealth buttressing a monstrous ego, and Crawford proves an adept bard of blowhard. The novel consists of 30-odd missives written over the course of several years by Leon Tuggs—engineer, industrialist, author, and unapologetic champion of things—to his grandchildren, Fabian and Rowena. The letters, composed while traveling by private jet to such far-flung spots as Taipei and Warsaw, remark upon the identical presents he’s bestowed to each, on the occasion of various milestones: a painstakingly constructed model, ranging from 1:24 to 1:8 in scale, of a vehicle he’s used over his long and eventful life. (The jacket bio for Crawford’s equally car-fixated 1966 debut, Gascoyne, tells us that the author himself once owned at least three of the machines Tuggs mentions: the 2cv, the Rover, and the 1933 Packard.) The nuances of the models (kept safe from their fingers in glass cabinets) are lost on Fabian and Rowena, of course, and their indifference leads to swapping, attacking, and selling the little two-of-a-kind pieces. Regrettable—but Tuggs has had the foresight to maintain a secret duplicate collection for each grandchild, thus assuring the future elimination of any gaps.
Tuggs’s fortune comes from the development and universal popularity of the Thingie®, an object so nebulously defined that the reader keeps trying to come up with a real-world analogue—some inconceivable cross between a Post-it and Microsoft Office, perhaps. The fun and the terror of Petroleum Man is in watching Tuggs bend the world to his law of things—objects gain in complexity, the environment exists to be exploited into thingdom, and eventually we humans, “with all our things, become the natural world itself.” He takes great pride in his first book, General Theory of Industrial Sex, “which posits . . . that civilization is based on the male piston and the female cylinder, the male bolt and the female nut,” and even his initial encounter with his wife-to-be is remembered as “intense hormonal activation at first sight.” Authorship itself becomes purely mechanical: A later Tuggs book, A General Theory of Mobility, is constructed by nine ghostwriters and nudged up the bestseller chart “by the fact that I suggested that I would be very pleased if every last one of my tens of thousands of loyal employees would buy a copy at the full retail hardback textbook price by means of painless electronic paycheck deductions.” Crawford’s perfect title would have been Things, if Georges Perec hadn’t already taken it 40 years ago.
Many molecules of truth emerge (“People like their billionaires to make occasional displays of frugality,” “money is in effect the most successful and longest lasting and longest surviving god that humankind has ever created”). But these invariably spin out into gonzo positions designed to chafe “liberal democrats” like son-in-law Chip or do-gooder wife Deirdre, who’s rebelled by setting up a feminist encampment that morphs into a “manure-strewn organic farm.” (Lest we confuse maker with model, we note that Crawford, who lives in New Mexico, has written of his own farming experiences in A Garlic Testament.)
Tuggs’s increasing isolation allows a distant note of sorrow to gain in volume, but it’s still hard to imagine his ironclad sense of superiority tumbling anytime soon (“my ego . . . assures me that deep down I am both right and know I am right”). “Things will never let you down,” insists the genius behind the Thingie®. Tuggs remains worlds away from knowing, as the heroine of Crawford’s incantatory Log of the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine (1977) put it so matter-of-factly, that “things grow, things die, is it.”