Readers who come to The Good Hand previously uninterested in moving equipment — which is, well, everyone — will also find a memoir padded in front, bumpy in Smith’s self-portrayal as both a quiet watcher and an 'adrenaline freak' and short of the redemptive transformation sold by the book’s subtitle ... This, in other words, might be a book that pleases no one ... And yet, after Smith finally starts working in the oil field, in June 2013, the memoir tightens its grip with its depictions of action and men. Smith brings an alchemic talent to describing physical labor, which comes with numb fingers, swinging cranes, precarious footing, damp boots, hooks, chains and extreme cold. He not only writes work scenes with precision but also treats precision itself with reverence: Understanding and doing the job precisely allowed him to triumph over his own softness, ignorance and fear ... With a playwright’s talent for dialogue, storytelling in miniature and staying out of the way, Smith writes dozens of scenes of men moving, joking and endlessly talking — there are few stoics here, or women — in pickups, sublets, job sites and bars ... Smith never excuses what he heard and saw: homophobia, misogyny, racism and not-too-regretful boasting of past crimes. But he doesn’t define the men by that either...By doing so, he refuses to spoon-feed us judgment; his writing keeps people alive in their histories, talents, humor and mistakes ... does not recount catharsis or much transformation. It brings instead perspective, on how people, including Smith, can sometimes rise above their worst selves through unglamorous, demanding, difficult work. That perspective is a morality, and a relief in a world quick to dismiss, quick to divide and quick to believe that American work is now only about collecting data and selling knowledge. And so maybe by writing a book that pleases no one, Smith wrote a book that should be read.
The Good Hand is in part a meditation on how central oil is to our lives, but it is just as much about the gruesome work of actually extracting that oil ... This book could have been as unsurprising as the privileged life Smith left behind. Man is bored, does hard thing, emerges with lessons. What makes Smith’s book matter is the wealth of world-building detail, as well as the journey through pain both physical and psychological ... There are about 600 chapters in this book. All are quite short. They jump around chronologically with astonishing success. From the first time Smith fits hooks and chains under a heavy piece of equipment to his sad attempts to make friends, from his first glimmers of self-doubt to his what-was-I-thinking agonies, what carries us along is imagery ripped from There Will Be Blood and replanted in striking prose.
... ambitious ... Mr. Smith deftly flashes back to memories from his troubled childhood in central Maryland while dealing with the fear and despair he experienced living in a modern work camp that bordered on social anarchy ... Masquerading as a modern-day Guthrie in the newest Oil City may be a somewhat hoary idea, but considering the publishing world’s seemingly endless fascination with working-class voters in the Trump era, it’s understandable that a publisher greenlighted it ... Sadly, Guthrie’s weltanschauung is not the only thing that Mr. Smith appears to have borrowed. A central character in The Good Hand’ is Porkchop, a giant tattooed Native American who spent time in prison for murder. He sounds like Chief Bromden, a giant Native American imprisoned by the state, in Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’’ Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but in the acknowledgements Mr. Smith thanks his editor for 'the Ken Kesey stories.' Hmmm ... Post-truth readers who take memoirists seriously but not literally will find much to like about The Good Hand. Mr. Smith writes empathetically but not sentimentally about working men and women scuffling paycheck to paycheck, and he does so in a Skid Row patois that would make Charles Bukowski proud. He may, at last, have found his calling.