Fracking, Fracturing, and Finding Truth: John Sayles on Going Below the Surface

The new issue of Democratic Left, soon to be in members’ mailboxes and online next week, contains a profile of acclaimed writer/filmmaker John Sayles. who spent February promoting his new book Yellow Earth. Ecosocialists may be especially interested in the latter novel, and its exploration of the consequences of fracturing the earth (fracking) to meet capital’s insatiable demands. The post below makes a deeper dive into the issue than we could fit into the print story, which still fills pp 10-11 of our Spring 2020 magazine. 

“I’m John,” boomed the voice entering a Philadelphia bookstore on February 6, 2020. The small crowd snapped to attention at the familiar voice. For some of us, Sayles’s voice and face have been our touchstone for decades. Neither the white hair nor the slightly thicker body could mask that this was the same guy – the one playing Ring Lardner in Eight Men Out, the interstellar overseer chasing Joe Morton in The Brother From Another Planet,  or even the goofball local-boy in the first movie he directed, Return of the Secaucus Seven. We’d come for that voice, with its warm delivery and its moments of journalistic quietness, a man who listens far more than he talks. And out of that listening, Sayles weaves stories, on paper and on film, in which we have seen far more than ourselves. 

That night, Sayles first read from his new novel, Yellow Earth-introducing us to its characters, many of whom are Native American, all of whom have their lives upended by  North Dakota’s oil boom. Instead of political speechifying about the ills of fracking, the book shows these characters amid the fracturing/transformation of their community, as fast as the land being split open for the oil underneath. Yellow Earth is in many ways a portrait of the way we all live now, in what some are calling “late capitalism.” 

For the hour following, Sayles took questions from the audience, many/most of whom had come because of his movies; one union organizer thanked him for Matewan, a 1987 film set during  a 1920s miners’ strike in West Virginia.  For so many there, his movies formed the soundtrack to our lives, from the ex-activists’ identity crisis in that first movie, the lesbian love story of Lianna, the corruption and destruction of the underrated City of Hope, right through the birth of  U.S. overseas imperialism in 2011’s Amigo. Over the years we met ourselves in his movies and argued about the rest. We also laughed: each movie contains as much humor as angst. 

That cinematic oeuvre sometimes obscures Sayles’s fiction, his other way of bringing these stories to light, a literary output whose propulsive prose tackles similar questions about life under capitalism, with its embedded racism/misogyny/militarism. Those issues recur even when the stories are set in the past, whether Matewan’s 1921 coal-miners’ strike or the 1880s/90s of both Amigo and his 2011 novel A Moment In the Sun. 

Sayles started Yellow Earth, with its oil-industry culture clash, after trying to make a movie about the United States Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Talking to Native families in Carlisle, which experienced a fracking boom 15 years ago, made Sayles think about the current fracking oil frenzy sparked by the Bakken Formation, 200,000 acres of shale underlying parts of Montana, North Dakota and Saskatchewan.  And much of that on native land. 

To create his fictional community, Sayles read numerous books and government reports on the shale oil revolution, before he went to the Bakken.  He learned that fracking technologies and hazards vary by location: for instance, in Pennsylvania, water supplies were ruined by drilling into abandoned coal mines, while Oklahoma’s shale was in an earthquake-prone region. 

The jury’s still out about the North Dakota wells, drilled scores of miles below the surface. “Thanks to the Halliburton Amendment, the Environmental Protection Agency has no jurisdiction!” he told the audience.By the time any ill effects emerge, he added, the oil companies responsible have contracted out any liability to subcontractors that are long gone.

Meanwhile, that oil money has created a roving working class. It’s a hard group to unionize, Sayles said: “It’s a group of young men – mostly men” – who come from all over the country, to make $70K a month for a very short period of time. “They come from everywhere. One of my characters even comes to the Bakken from Mexico. And the opportunity to make that much money, so quickly – it creates a kind of fever in people,” making difficult any kind of organizing.

Sayles’s commitment to working-class stories is undimmed. He talked to DL about his own years working  the night shift as an orderly, when “people brought their home lives to the office”  and also pushed for change. In this 1970s hospital, “when they let us have a staff meeting, 90% of the gripes weren’t about pay or working conditions—they were about patient care.” Eventual unionization thus helped everyone.

Once Yellow Earth  is completely launched,  Sayles’s possible next projects include a just-written novel set in 18th-century Pennsylvania and a film about Nuevo Laredo, the complex and conflicted  binational culture of the U.S.-Mexico border. “I’m thinking about ICE employees,” he said. “Some have been given the green light to really criminalize the work, but —  there must be some who think, man, isn’t it bad enough that we seize these people and separate the families, send them back where they came from – do we have to torture them, too?” Other characters might come from the people struggling to make a living south of the border. 

“There’s a big strike  going on right now in Nuevo Laredo,” Sayles told me. “And guess what — all  Chinese factories just up and left. From a so-called Communist country!” Rueful laughter and a shrug completed the thought, about the commedia of our lives now.

 To close the interview, Sayles grinned and repeated something that he’d scattered through the interview. “People are crazy. It’s a s***tshow!”

Pick up the Spring 2020 issue to read more about Sayles, including a sidebar listing 40 years of Sayles films and insight into what he really thinks of DSA and the Bernie Sanders moment. Also, if your chapter or union or eco-activist group decides to discuss Yellow Earth, the publisher offers a 50% discount for orders of ten or more.


The cover of Sayles' new book shows oil's cratering of Native land.
The cover of Sayles’ new book shows oil’s cratering of Native land.