Book review

John Sayles vividly remembers Main Street in a small town atop the Bakken Formation, a subterranean stratum of oil-rich shale rock beneath large areas of Montana, North Dakota and Canada.

The town, which Sayles has been careful not to name in recent interviews and author appearances promoting his latest book, served as the inspiration for the eponymous burg exploited by Big Oil in his ambitious, incisive new novel, “Yellow Earth.”

“The street was actually a stretch of highway that passed through town,” said Sayles in a recent interview. “Drivers prayed they could blow through without encountering a stoplight.”

Then along came hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, around 2007. Suddenly, technology existed that could extract billions of barrels of oil from that ancient shale. A boom time erupted, disrupting the remote community.

“There was an invasion of roughnecks, men without women, who arrived to work the fracking machines,” says Sayles. “There was an army of truck drivers, various camp followers and economic opportunists.”

The town’s population soared from 15,000 to 45,000 in a matter of months. Environmental damage ensued. Some people made money, but understaffed local cops had to deal with rising crime. As for Main Street? Traffic now crawled at 5 mph. 

Sayles’ fifth novel is set in that same Bakken locale and era. When a deep-pocketed oil company approaches North Dakota’s Three Nations reservation about buying drilling rights to their land (while also attempting to sell neighboring Yellow Earth on the same idea), a cascade of conflicting agendas follows.


The chairman of the tribal business council for Three Nations, Harleigh Killdeer, predicts that selling those rights would present long-awaited economic and political sovereignty for local tribes. Other tribal leaders, however, sense something suspicious in the fracking deal.

An animal-rights activist worries about more hunting by newcomers to the area and deplores the slaughter of prairie dogs by macho gun owners. Yellow Earth’s sheriff dreads the violence and drug use that go along with new strip clubs opening for bored laborers.

Consideredone of the godfathers of independent cinema, Sayles has always had a flair for juggling and understanding the multiple viewpoints of characters caught up in shared conflicts and challenges.

“People may speak the same language, but they don’t hold the same suppositions,” he says. “They disagree every day about the facts of what happens. That’s one of the reasons I write from many perspectives in a novel. Most people don’t have a global viewpoint. They’re just trying to survive and deal with what the world deals to them. Their fixed points of view are belief systems.”

The believable and culturally diverse characters in “Yellow Earth,” all unknowingly buffeted by the same obscure oligarchs and corrupt forces, suggest a lot about the author’s faith in the sweeping possibilities of a novel. He pleases a reader in that way, but he can also go off the rails, sometimes, while exploring niche subjects.


For instance, Sayles goes on for pages and pages about the fraught relationship between people and prairie dogs. And his extended scene of cutesy bargaining between exotic dancers and their customers can leave one queasy.

And sometimes a writer’s extensive research can get in the way of a story. But those occasional sections of “Yellow Earth,” where a reader might glaze over for a moment, are forgiven in light of the way that all sides in the larger story crash in on themselves at the climax.

On the movie side of his life, things seem to have become harder for Sayles, now 69. An Oscar-nominated writer and director who has financed and produced his own celebrated films (“Matewan,” “Men with Guns,” “Return of the Secaucus 7”), Sayles has found the contemporary economics of independent filmmaking to be self-defeating.

Meanwhile, there’s prose.

“I wrote another novel in the year it took to find a publisher for ‘Yellow Earth,’” Sayles says. “It’s fun writing books. It’s what I do in my so-called downtime, when I don’t have a paying job.”


“Yellow Earth” by John Sayles, Haymarket Books, 416 pp., $28

Author appearance: Sayles will discuss “Yellow Earth” at 7 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 28, at Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; 206-624-6600;