Jeremy Griffin

As a native of Louisiana, I followed closely the events surrounding the 2010 BP oil spill. I remember the grisly footage of the black oil jet spurting up from the floor of the Gulf, and I recall the succession of fruitless strategies put into effect until finally the breach was contained. But most of all, I remember the feelings of frustration this evoked in residents, who were virtually powerless against the 68,000-square-foot slick decimating the ecosystem.

And so naturally, I was drawn to David Gessner’s The Tarball Chronicles: A Journey Beyond the Oiled Pelican and Into the Heart of the Gulf Oil Spill. Developed from a series of blog posts by the author, the goal of the book is to put a face to the disaster, to drive home the human cost as well as the monetary. Yet, stirring as they may be for those of us interested in protecting what little Earth we haven’t destroyed, the author’s appeals for environmental conscientiousness offer few new insights on this immensely complicated issue.

The premise is simple: Gessner, a professor of English at UNC Wilmington and a renowned nature writer and environmentalist, traveled throughout the southeastern coast interviewing those people most affected by the spill. He bunked in funky little lodges, ate in cozy diners, and walked the shoreline to inspect the slick for himself. For those of us with little patience for interview-style prose, this personal approach is powerful, offering plenty of opportunities for scene establishment. Gessner’s descriptions are evocative and frank, the environmental devastation tempered with the prudence of a veteran writer:

I walked down to the water’s edge, my first real encounter with the spill, and found the sand covered with tarballs. Though they didn’t look like balls exactly. The small ones looked like dried rabbit turds or kernels of a not-particularly appetizing cereal. The larger ones were maps of rust-brown countries or jigsaw puzzle pieces, some the size of cow patties. . . . As I looked into the clumps of oily turds I began to suspect that we had really done it. . . . We have soiled ourselves.

Rather than simply reiterate the information funneled to us from the extensive media coverage, these descriptions underscore the spill’s less obvious but nonetheless deadly consequences—for instance, its long-term effects on soil erosion rates. Indeed, from the outset of the book we are asked to view it as a systemic issue to which we are all inextricably linked, not just as Americans but as humans:

‘When we try to pick anything by itself,’ [philosopher John] Muir said, ‘we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.’ . . . Wasn’t the spill hitched to everything? Already the disaster seemed to be trying to teach me something, in dramatic fashion, a lesson that the world kept teaching me but that I had been too slow to learn: on this planet, nothing is apart from anything else—all of us, human, plant, animal: intertwined.

It makes sense, then, that Gessner’s interviewees represent a striking variety of backgrounds and attitudes. There is Ryan Lambert, a lodge owner whose affable good will and familial attachment to the Delta region help usher us throughout the narrative. Then there are Holly and Brian, members of a Jean-Michel Cousteau film team scrambling to document the environmental impact of the spill, both of them walking a fine line between outrage and journalistic neutrality. And then you’ve got a host of supporting characters, including philosopher-waiters, Christian bull riders, and drug addicts, each of whom offers a unique texture to the narrative. Or maybe it’s just the reverence of Gessner’s depictions: he likes these people, some of them in spite of himself, because it’s only through their stories he believes we are able to truly appreciate the scope of such an event.

What are less effective, however, are the soapbox episodes used to string these accounts together, in which Gessner, somewhat artlessly, mourns the fate of the planet in the wake of the disaster. Here the narrative’s efforts to illustrate the complexity of the event falter, distilling it instead into one-dimensional tale of good versus evil. Consider, for example, his claim that “almost everyone along the Gulf seems to have signed a deal with the devil, a devil that in this case isn’t represented by horns and pitchfork, but by BP’s green and sunny logo.” Clichés aside, this seems like an unreasonable charge to level at one of the most impoverished regions in the country, especially considering that BP’s presence in the Gulf was largely the result of federal laws and not state legislation voted into effect by residents.

It isn’t that Gessner’s overarching concerns are unwarranted, but they don’t demonstrate the same critical awareness as his face-to-face dealings with residents. For instance, perhaps he’s correct when he draws a comparison between oil dependence and drug usage: “Just as surely as a junkie’s life leads to degradation and crime, I can see spilled on the beaches below me the results of our addiction.” Despite any truth to this analogy, isn’t it a little incongruent for Gessner to recognize this fact while at the same time not recognize how dehumanizing the word “junkie” is?

Moreover, this sort of sentiment speaks to a simplistic understanding of our relationship to oil, our disenchantment with which has long been established. In this sense, Gessner’s faith in the Voice of the People doesn’t strike the optimistic chord he’s going for; rather, it comes across as naive.

Then again, what can one say about an event like the BP oil spill that doesn’t sound naive? Complexities aside, it is one of the worst disasters our planet has ever seen, and it does indeed point to the potential consequences of our abuse of natural resources. To this end, Gessner’s passion is commendable, as is the book’s approach to such a weighty issue. I’m just worried it might have come a few years too late.


Jeremy Griffin is the author of a collection of short fiction from Stephen F. Austin University Press titled A Last Resort for Desperate People: Stories and a Novella. His work has appeared in a variety of journals, including the Greensboro Review, Indiana Review, Mid-American Review, and Shenandoah. He is also a contributing writer for Popmatters.com and the Colorado Review book review blog. He lives in South Carolina, where he is an English lecturer at Coastal Carolina University. 

The Tarball Chronicles: A Journey Beyond the Oiled Pelican and Into the Heart of the Gulf Oil Spill
by David Gessner
Milkweed Editions, 2011
$24 (hardcover); ISBN: 9781571313331
272 pages