The night before Valentine’s Day in 2006, a motor hand on rig 455 at Patterson-UTI Drilling Company on the Mesa Oil Field near Pinedale in Wyoming, USA, fell 26 feet from the catwalk around an oil well conductor pipe.
Colton Bryant was 25. His short life story unlocks a real-life tale of the cost in blood, health and environmental degradation of the human need and greed that drive industrial development, in a new novel by a South African writer living in the USA.
‘The legend of Colton H Bryant’ by Alexandra Fuller tells how the worker’s family was informed as he lay dying. His mother rushed to his side and recalled later, in interviews with the author, that Colton was born in a rush, while she was in a car on the way to the maternity ward. His short life was framed by an unusually short birth, almost as if in a rush, and an equally short death.
As Fuller delved into the near blameless life of the young worker and the social issues of the industrialised western world, she discovered that Neil Diamond’s ‘Forever in Blue Jeans’ was one of Bryant’s favorite songs: “Money talks, but it don’t sing and dance and it can’t walk…”
Colton was a fourth generation Wyoming oil worker, but the pace of oil and gas pumping in the last decade had increased out of proportion to any tradition. Rigs now often stand within five acres from one another. More than half the workers are now from other states, many living in trailer ‘parks’. Trailer windows are covered in foil to dim the glare, and to afford night workers daytime rest.
John Denver sang soulfully of this western state in his ‘Song of Wyoming’ in the 1970s, but that ‘wild and free’ Wyoming is disappearing fast. Roads are lined with dead game animals hit by trucking traffic around the clock. Bryant was given a wild colt to break in when he turned 16, in Wyoming tradition, but the colt had escaped, offering one of the images in the novel of lost experience and the divorce between mankind and his natural domain, as we delve deeper into the earth than our habitat could sustain.
The author uses a sparse style to evoke the landscape of industrial transformation. Fuller discussed the elements of industrial culture, health and safety during an interview on the SAFM radio talk show ‘Otherwise’ in April 2009. She is married and a mother of three.
Her first novel, ‘Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight’, was a memoir of growing up in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. Her second book, ‘Scribbling the Cat’, was on her travels with a Rhodesian ex-mercenary in Africa.
* Alexandra Fuller; The Legend of Colton H Bryant; 2008, Penguin Press.