On a raw, gray Manhattan afternoon last February, the novelist and financier Gary Sernovitz, whom n+1 founder Keith Gessen has called “a unique figure in American letters,” stood outside a white brick building just north of Houston Street on Avenue A, where he lived for six years during the 1990s in a light-starved studio apartment. The building had been the setting for the most creatively productive period of his life, and I’d asked Sernovitz to meet me there on the eve of the publication of a new book—his first in more than a decade. In the intervening years, Sernovitz had become a managing director at Lime Rock Capital, an energy-centric private equity firm, married, and taken a much larger apartment. He’d also contributed occasional essays to highbrow magazines and maintained friendships with prominent novelists, editors, and journalists among whom he cuts something of an odd figure: an oilman and an investment guru, a holder of frequent-flyer elite status.
“He was always the only one of us who was working in ‘the real world,’ as someone in a different industry might put it,” said Jana Prikryl, a friend and an editor at the New York Review of Books. “It was always like he had this secret life as a businessman.” At work, too, beside straight-laced financial analysts, Sernovitz can seem out of place. Not long ago, he heard some gossip about himself that wasn’t entirely complimentary. “You know, I just don’t understand Gary,” a Texan associate was said to muse. “He seems smart. I just don’t get how Gary could be a Democrat!” About five years ago, “fracking” entered popular parlance, producing more disharmonious cross-pollination between the previously distinct spheres in which he circulates. In his new book, The Green and The Black, a nonfiction account of the paradigm-rupturing changes to the energy business known collectively as the shale revolution, Sernovitz attempts to allay the hostilities between his two worlds.
Slight and balding, with a neat brown beard and bright dark eyes, Sernovitz gazed up at his former home. On his old block, there were traces of the East Village’s faded bohemian flavor as well as of its increasingly affluent new residents. On one corner, an outlet of the Whole Foods knockoff Union Market stood steps from the Double Down Saloon, a punk bar whose decorative scheme involves midget erotica. For much of his time on Avenue A, Sernovitz had earned no income, remaining eligible for tenancy only through a bit of low-level fraud. After graduating from Cornell, he had worked for two-and-a-half years on Wall Street, and a former supervisor had provided his landlord with a letter attesting to his continuing employment there. By then, though, Sernovitz had quit so that he could focus on the novel he’d begun writing at night during bouts of insomnia—a dark, comic tale of a hapless Midwestern piano organ salesman titled Great American Plain.
Reviews for that book and his next—The Contrarians—were mostly positive, but sales were uniformly slow. Sernovitz persisted, writing in the mornings and reading obsessively through the afternoons. Between his apartment’s lack of windows and his having no particular need to go outside, Sernovitz’s skin grew pale. His budget was tight and his diet unvaried. Over boiled noodles, he emptied countless jars of tomato sauce. This routine produced neither enviable muscle tone nor notable romantic intrigue, and also failed to impress his agent, who dropped him. With his savings dwindling, he took the job at Lime Rock in 2004.
Practically since then, the writer Tom Bissell, a friend Sernovitz met when Bissell had worked as an editor on his first novel, had been nagging him to write “a liberal’s guide to the oil business.” Sernovitz didn’t think he had a story worth telling until about five years ago, when the HBO documentary Gasland was released, followed closely by an investigative series in the New York Times titled “Drilling Down.” Both were suspicious, if not outright critical, of goings on in the oil and gas business, and both appeared where many of Sernovitz’s friends were sure to see them. At dinner parties, he suddenly found himself the target of pointed interrogations: “How can you frack!?” Meanwhile, in Texas, where Sernovitz often travels on business, oil industry executives, who had long teased him for being, as he puts it, “a Democrat-donating, yoga-practicing, skinny-pants-wearing New York City cliché,” were becoming somewhat pricklier. Sernovitz had, in short, become the embattled protagonist of a rather complicated sitcom. Perhaps, he thought, there might be a book here after all.
Texas oil executives needled him for being ‘a Democrat-donating, yoga-practicing, skinny-pants-wearing New York City cliché’
And so there was. The Green and the Black is divided into five sections—industrial, local, financial, global, and national—each detailing a perspective on the domestic energy boom of recent years, which has been facilitated by the extraction of oil and natural gas from previously unreachable reservoirs. The boom, Sernovitz writes, “is the Internet of oil, a spark from and to existing technologies that led to an industrial change of such magnitude and speed that we have woken up, after a short nap, in a once impossible world.” The technologies he has in mind are horizontal well-drilling and fracking—the fracturing of rock with fluid injected at high pressure to release the resources inside or underneath. An apt moniker for the world that they’ve produced, he says, might be Saudi America. To companionable effect, he often assumes a fish-out-of-water style reminiscent of Michael Lewis’ descriptions in Liar’s Poker of the Wall Street bond bonanza of the 1980s, showing how he developed his understanding from behind his desk and at the muddy edges of oil wells.
Having acknowledged his inevitable subjectivity in the book’s first pages, Sernovitz sets out to render his story as evenhandedly as he can. But it is difficult to come away from The Green and the Black thinking that he applies his rhetorical skills with equal zeal to pro and anti-fracking arguments. (Careful with words, Sernovitz points out that when the opposition says “fracking,” they’re mostly referring to other, albeit often-related issues, like the reckless disposal of contaminated wastewater; in an aside, he notes that some oilmen refuse to use the word at all.) Sernovitz presents the case against—polluted drinking water; earthquakes; fire-spouting faucets; general environmental destruction—dutifully, and, then for the most part, deflates it.
While Sernovitz’s tone can be flippant, the equivalency he draws—between everyday ethical voids, the way most of us ignore them—engenders an odd, counterintuitive sympathy. The effect is not to vindicate the continued production of fossil fuels—Sernovitz actually comes pretty close here to admitting that it might not ultimately be such a great idea—but to place it on a continuum of compromises from which few can claim innocence. Most of us, after all, are forever choosing comfort, convenience, and stability, even when it means forsaking abstract passions, like Fair Trade standards, composting, or, for that matter, writing fiction.
On the first night of March, Sernovitz and Bissell, who had also published a new book, took seats in the brightly lit basement of McNally Jackson Books, in Manhattan, before an audience of several dozen friends, fans, and family members. Among them were the New Yorker writer Ian Parker; Gideon Lewis-Kraus—whose memoir, A Sense of Direction, features Bissell as a character—and many men and women in their late 30s and early 40s wearing glasses in thick rectangular frames. The men traded friendly barbs and riffed on in-group jokes—Sernovitz’s ludditism, Bissell’s digestive idiosyncrasies, the musical palate of NPR segment breaks—occasionally including friends in the audience in their bonhomie.
Bissell’s book Apostle, an exploration of the lives and leavings of the Twelve Apostles that combines travel writing, religious history, and personal reflection, had gestated for roughly 10 years. With introductory banter exhausted, Sernovitz asked Bissell about the apparent oddity of a secular liberal spending a decade on a book about Christianity. Apostle’s path to publication had actually been longer, Bissell said. Until early adulthood, he had been a believer. Later, he’d spent years writing a novel about the apostle John, which was never published. He’d come to think of religious writing as “a profoundly creative exercise” quite akin to the merely literary kind. “I draw the most meaning in my life from stories about made-up people who don’t exist,” Bissell said. In this, he broke with the devout only over their insistence that their favorite stories were true.
For mythos the founders of the shale revolution don’t rival the apostles. But for a frustrated novelist, they make ideal subjects. They are, as Sernovitz puts it, “men on horseback,” dauntless figures from a frontier that, until they created it, did not exist. They suggest the impossible love children of Saul Bellow and Cormac McCarthy—rugged, relentless, creative, and self-reliant. The Father of Fracking, George Mitchell, who died at 94 in 2013, was the son of a Greek goatherd and the sire of more than 1,000 Texan wildcat wells. Harold Hamm, “the boom’s Lincoln,” who spent his childhood picking cotton to assist his sharecropper father, has a current net worth estimated at $9.4 billion. Then there is Aubrey McClendon, “the swaggering, never-retreating Teddy Roosevelt” of the boom. McClendon, Sernovitz writes, is a figure worthy of Dreiser, with his “mane of graying blond hair that puts him somewhere between a Viennese conductor and a Civil War-era senator,” his taste for historic maps, rare wine, and risk. Sadly, McClendon has since come to look something like the boom’s Icarus. On March 1, after being indicted for rigging oil and gas lease bids, McClendon crashed his car fatally into a wall in Oklahoma City, an apparent suicide.
The bookstore was crowded and growing overwarm. Some days earlier, Bissell had told me that The Green and the Black expands on a theme that has long preoccupied Sernovitz, including in two novels he wrote after The Contrarians, which were never published. “I think he’s always trying to redeem what, from a certain liberal perspective, might seem unredeemable,” he said. “His first novel was about a couple of sub-literate shyster brothers in the Midwest.” (Sernovitz is from Wisconsin, Bissell from Michigan.) The Contrarians provides a humane portrayal of an arrogant young Wall Street prodigy, and its successor depicts a man writing successive anguished drafts of a letter to an African American acquaintance concerning his feeling of compunction about white privilege. His last novel includes a sympathetic portrait of evangelical Christianity. Bissell continued, “Gary’s always trying to show you that people’s motives are not quite as uncomplicated as you think they are.”
Now he raised the subject with Sernovitz, who looked mildly embarrassed. “I think that’s a basic part of any novel,” Sernovitz said. “To make readers see some element of pride or beauty where they normally don’t, or wouldn’t. I tried to extend that to this book. But that’s not a personal mission. That’s the novel’s mission in general.”
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Chris Pomorski is a writer living in Brooklyn.