Is it possible to walk the line successfully between politics and literature, between polemic and art? Reading Rick Bass’s “Oil” one wonders if all art is, or at least should be, inherently political. Bass understands how to walk the line, how to push us toward our better selves. He does it because he offers himself up first, giving his honest assessment of the paradoxes in his own character. Yes, he is a “poet and oilman, novelist and logger, environmentalist and elk hunter,” and it is his acknowledgment of the essential compromise within us all that makes us believe, makes us follow his voice so that when he echoes Beckett’s “I can’t go on; I must go on,” we willingly go with him.
The fiction writer knows that paradox makes a character interesting; the nonfiction writer exploits paradox, using it to explore theme; the memoirist sifts through the nearly infinite paradoxes within the self to find the essence that illuminates us all.