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Blind Sidetrack Summary

Blind Sidetrack summary

Blind Sidetrack combines oilfield adventure, satire and personal drama

Blind Sidetrack by Ron Bitto is a unique book, a literary novel set in the oilfield. The story unfolds in 1982 when an unprecedented drilling boom collapses, and the employees of American Sidetrack Incorporated have to cope with layoffs, blowouts, a takeover and a kidnapping.

The action takes place in oilfield locales from Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana to Oman, Bangkok and Vera Cruz. But Blind Sidetrack is more than an entertaining adventure. The novel skewers American business and the executives who run it, and it examines how ambition can put constant pressure on family, friendship, character and integrity.

John Biondi, the narrator, is the PR manager and special assistant to Dave King, American Sidetrack’s president. A Princeton graduate from New Jersey, Biondi is an outsider who is as fascinated with the oilfield as Melville’s Ishmael is infatuated with whaling, and Dave King is surely John’s Ahab. But instead of being obsessed with a white whale, Dave’s megalomania is directed at making money and retaining power as president of an independent company. Suspicious of his own employees, he writes memos in longhand to bypass his secretary and monitors the company entrance for latecomers with a truck mirror mounted above his desk. To encourage cost cutting measures, he distributes miniature hatchets to members of his executive staff. And when his company is the target of a takeover attempt, Dave ignores every other problem, including the kidnapping of his top technical expert. 

The expert, Bob Stanton, is a focal point of the novel’s action and its major themes. A talented, charismatic young engineer, he has made his reputation by quickly drilling a relief well to bring a Saudi Arabian blowout under control. As the book opens, Dave King sends John Biondi to Oklahoma on the company jet to entice Stanton to rejoin American Sidetrack as its relief well expert. Stanton disdains corporate rules and bureaucracy, but is so ambitious that he hurls himself into the grueling work, constant stress, and physical danger of fighting oilwell blowouts. On a personal level, Bob Stanton is a complex figure to John Biondi. Compared to John’s vicarious role as assistant and observer, Bobby is an active hero, a natural leader, with charm and a knack for enjoying life. The two men are married to sisters, who are smart, headstrong and expecting babies. What’s more, Stanton bears a strong resemblance to Biondi’s older brother Frank, who was killed in the Vietnam War before John could emerge from his shadow.  

Bob Stanton is a great engineer and a dynamic personality, but he can’t resist the temptations of the fast life on the road. When John finds out that Bobby has begun an affair with a beautiful Dutch woman, John has to manage conflicting loyalties – to his friend Bobby and to his wife’s sister.  

The novel is full of tall tales told by characters who claim to have lived them. For example, we hear of Bob Stanton’s harrowing (and comic) ride in a rickety helicopter from an offshore platform to a hospital in Port Arthur after he cuts his thumb with an X-acto knife. Driller J.C. Connolly tells how his face would have been permanently disfigured after a drunk driving accident if Bobby hadn’t dragged a plastic surgeon to the hospital in the middle of the night. Another driller, Dwight Carlton, tells of a cable car that falls into a channel near Singapore when a towed semi-submersible rig breaks loose from its tugboats, and about J.C. Connolly’s unlikely survival after falling off the back of a crew boat into the South China Sea. Board member Cal Ferguson tells how he made the mistake of wearing a white suit on an overnight train trip across India, only to wake up in Dhera Dhun covered in ashes and soot spewed from the locomotive that replaced the diesel engine some time before dawn. And John Biondi arrives at a well site in Thailand only hours after it has been raided by Khmer Rouge insurgents. 

While Dave King is clearly the novel’s villain, he’s not alone when it comes to unsavory behavior. Dean Van Reynolds, an oil company executive and American Sidetrack customer, is a venal brute, who treats his hunting dogs better than his son, and who covers up the shooting death of his Mexican housemaid. Harvey Broussard, American Sidetrack Vice President and Jimmy Swaggart look-alike, sells the sizzle instead of the steak, steals from the company, and avoids all personal danger even when Bob Stanton’s life is at stake. Helen O’Connor, HR manager and the company’s only female executive, is so driven for advancement that she is drawn into a demeaning relationship with Dave King and acts callously to employees during a major layoff. Bobby’s wife Melanie reads good poetry but isn’t smart enough to convince him to devote more time to his family. While Bobby is working in Oman, she signs his name to a mortgage on a half-constructed house, and then expects him to finish building it when he comes home. Even John’s father-in-law, Mayhew McGrath, the gentlemanly old oilman, lets greed overcome his better judgment and perpetrates a "white oil" scheme to steal natural gas in liquid form from a major oil company. 

John Biondi himself has been corrupted, too. He produces and runs a magazine advertisement featuring "Prince Omar’s Dagger," a ceremonial knife embedded with lapis lazuli, which a Saudi prince is reported to have presented to Bob Stanton for killing his first oilwell fire. John knows from the start that Stanton won the knife in a poker game. He launches the campaign anyway, because Dave King is captivated by the tall tale and insists on publicizing it.

The novel’s final test comes in Mexico, when guerillas kidnap Bob Stanton to keep him from controlling the offshore fire they started to advance their cause. Meanwhile, a rival company has launched a hostile takeover for American Sidetrack, so Dave King assigns his least valuable assistant, John Biondi, to negotiate Stanton’s release. As he works to free his friend, John learns about himself, his employers, the ambiguities of the Third World, and the limits of loyalty and friendship.

The book’s title, Blind Sidetrack, comes from a technical term for an oil well that is drilled around an obstacle without using survey instruments to chart its exact location. To Biondi, a blind sidetrack is a metaphor for his career in the oilfield. When he notices that his table at an industry dinner is filled with Texas Aggies, he realizes: "It was clear to me that my life had taken a detour, a blind sidetrack. I was drilling ahead with no direction; I might hit pay dirt but could just as easily waste my effort on a dry hole…If I kept working hard, kept trying to please Dave, I might have a job after all the cuts were finished. But did I even want my job? What did it mean to me?" By the end of the evening, he decides to look for a job in another industry.

But it is hard to imagine that anyone who tells such a sweeping and intoxicating story about the oilfield could stay away from it for very long.

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