Top critical review
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on 2 August 2012
If you knew nothing about the oil business and international politics - then this might be a starter book for you. Otherwise, forget it. This is a sub-Vanity Fair stylistic compilation of themeless unconnected selected tales and vignettes involving Exxon Mobil and more specifically, chosen handfuls of its personnel. There is, barring passing comment, no serious or lengthy, or most importantly, integrated, analysis of Exxon and what it is about and how it may or may not be shaping global oil.
I say "Vanity Fair", as it is written, as sadly increasingly most such books are these days, in the journo-creates-atmosphere style by conveying "place" and "character" while pretending that the writer was there.
If text such as "It was a grey rainy November day when Jim "the shark" Macaulay got into his regulation Exxon hire car to drive...He was a long term Exxon employee widely held in high regard for his skills at..." appeals to you, then this book is for you. Otherwise - dreadful.
Have you ever noticed how in all these sorts of books ALL the staff introduced are always really really experienced, bright, perceptive, hard working, seem to have extraordinary skills that somehow no-one else has. NOBODY at management level is ever out of their depth, dumb, deceitful, slow, not very capable or bright, unwilling to take responsibility or make a decision, over-promoted, sycophantic or just "average"...
For sure given his reputation the author can get access to the organisation first hand and to senior management; he has conducted various interviews. His funding has allowed him to interview people in different countries. But all that has then happened is that these interviews have been dressed up and strung together. There is little-no serious core to this book nor coherence. Entities such as Exxon are huge multi-dimensional concerns; any attempt to come to terms with them thus requires knowledge and input on multi-dimensional topics and levels. That also takes anyone a long time to do; it is a sustained undertaking. It is a complicated endeavor. If that is not being done - by someone with the qualifiications to do it - what you get, at very best, is the blind man and the elephant parable.
What has been presented here is a quickie knock off book. The "obvious" and old worn out topics - where thus material is easily accessible and already known - Exxon Valdez, peak oil arguments, oil and environment and NGO conflicts, oil and corruption in the 3rd World, are all trotted out. And if that was not bad enough are mostly all then given the fairly superficial treatment.
What of course - and it is deliberate technique - this style of sourcing information through interview projects to the reader, is that somehow the veil is being lifted and you are getting the "insider gen"; the stuff that has never been revealed before and so forth. The ultimate insider track view on some topic or other. Of course none of that is true, per se. Nor invariably in practice. What invariably you get are blandness, inanities and summations of the already known and deducible (even if no Exxon official has ever commented on X or Y before, we can make intelligent guesses as to what their view will be, we don't need implied "expose" face to face talks for that).
Coll's main first book, "Taking Getty Oil", was significantly better than this.
Sadly one can only suspect that what is going on here is that Coll is on autopilot now, living off, and dining out, on the perceived success of "Ghost Wars" and "The Bin Ladens" and has slipped into journo mode where he now writes superficial dross that is underpinned by little serious thought (or objective) and no coherent research.