For the past few years, GQ correspondent Jeanne Marie Laskas has explored the myriad behind-the-scenes lives that help make our first-world reality what it is today. To borrow a couple of sentences from the current political discourse, “You didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” Someone mined the coal so that, when you flip the light switch in your bedroom, the bulb goes on. Someone picked the blueberries that you sprinkle on your cereal. Someone hauled your trash to the landfill so you wouldn’t have to. You may be one hell of a self-reliant person, but, as Laskas brilliantly details, your life wouldn’t be what it is without these people.

My favorite piece in this series of stories − collected into a recently published book, Hidden America − is “Empire of Ice” (entitled “The Rig” in the book). I read it in GQ when it was published in October 2008 and immediately photocopied it and filed it for future reference. Ostensibly, the story is about how we extract oil from the earth, and, indeed, that is a worthy subject. Oil is a big part of the magic of our modern lives. As Laskas writes:

We process it into gasoline, asphalt, plastic, fertilizer. We fill up our cars with it, drive on roads made of it. We use it to make all those soda bottles and all those Baggies holding our lunches, the foam in our mattresses, the padding in our running shoes. The vegetables we eat are fed with and protected from bugs by it. We travel because of it, drink out of it, sleep on it, wear it, eat it, whine about how much it costs, argue about it, hate needing it, love it, kill for it. It is our most ubiquitous natural resource, the juice that made the past century possible.

There is some epic writing about machinery and oil here; this passage in particular reminded me, in at least one sense, of Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River: Part II:”

The hole being drilled is an infinitely complicated place, full of mystery and challenge and all the tools the toolpusher sticks down into it. The drill bit isn’t the only thing going down the hole. It’s just the tip of the “drill string,” which contains the tools, or “jewelry,” the drillers need to keep the whole assembly stabilized, to help it get unstuck if it gets stuck, and to read the rock formations that might help explain what the hell is going on down there. 

Laskas can match the very best when it comes to writing about masculine activities that are rich with sexual imagery. So, there’s that. But “Empire of Ice” is not really a story about oil, or about drilling for oil as a metaphor for sex; it is a story about men, and a story about family. The patriarch of this makeshift family is a man who goes by the name TooDogs. Right from the lead sentence − “TooDogs is on the run.” − Laskas telegraphs one of the major thematic elements of the piece (running from … something) that applies both to TooDogs and his charges on the rig.

She also makes it clear that most of the piece will be from her distinct point of view. It’s a smart choice; not acknowledging her own status as “other” (i.e., a highly educated woman) in this environment might have created an unnecessary distance. By using the first-person pronoun in the second sentence, she quickly establishes that she is part of the story. (More on this later.)

What struck me most when I first read this piece is the tenderness with which Laskas renders the lives of these men and their relationships to each other. The men − and they are all men − work two-week shifts (two on, two off) on an oil rig in the frozen ocean off the coast of Alaska’s North Slope, an existence of extreme isolation:

A person can’t just drive around the North Slope, visit the locals, stop in at a burger joint. There are no locals, no burger joints, no houses, no cities, no churches.

The temperature is frequently well below zero. There is no booze on the rig. Laskas writes:

I learn of parties, such as they are. Guys gather in the dining hall for ice cream, or chocolate chip cookies they nuke for twelve seconds.

I couldn’t help but think: Maybe this is what the American Dream looks like today.

These guys don’t have much, but they have work, and they have each other — a haphazard band of mixed-up, messed-up brothers. Laskas expertly toggles between the present and past − and, toward the end, future − to give well-rounded portraits even of the minor characters. TooDogs is the “toolpusher” and “runs the drilling operation.” He’s a former coke and heroin addict. Rod is the “company man.” Turtle is a “roustabout,” a glorified janitor, who’s got a high school diploma and makes close to $70,000 a year (“That’s insane, stupid money,” he says.). Kung Fu is an ex-con who once tried to start a combo “strip-club/meth-lab” in Sacramento. Stubbs is a recovering alcoholic. These latter two men are “roughnecks.” Because of his compassionate personality, TooDogs has earned, or has fallen into, the role of chief roughneck. TooDogs reminds Turtle to clean his room and to bathe. TooDogs tells a dude named Melvis, “who parades around with suspiciously perfect highlighted hair,” that the guys are making fun of him when they all dye their hair copper. (Melvis had thought it was because they liked his look.) TooDogs softens the blow for the roughnecks when Rod lights into them after a mechanical mishap. Of TooDogs, Laskas writes:

He says he’s a loner, a person who hides, deals with the world only in manageable chunks. It seems an unlikely analysis when I watch how loved he is here, how all the guys depend on him, how he’s the glue holding so much of this operation together, a fact he readily if regretfully recognizes. “I’m the dad,” he tells me. “I’m the mom. I’m the jailer. I’m the bail bondsman. But mostly, I guess, the dad.” 

But like the other men on this rig, TooDogs is, as Laskas foreshadowed in the first sentence, on the run. (If you’re looking for parallels with Hemingway’s oeuvre, you could be forgiven for being reminded here of those “running” expats in The Sun Also Rises.) Laskas hints at this throughout the first half of the piece, but it’s not until the sixth section (of nine) that she finally reveals the backstory of TooDogs’ life. She keeps the reader waiting, wondering, and when she finally does recount TooDogs’ past, the details have a powerful effect. He was beaten as a child; was addicted to drugs and then got sober; and generally has trouble dealing with the messiness of life and relationships. (The rig is “workable.” Marriage, life as a human being: That’s “hard.”) His father committed suicide by shooting himself in the head one day, shortly after calling TooDogs and saying, “I’m at the end of my rope.” In a detail that is remarkable in both its specificity and its symbolic power, Laskas tells us that TooDogs frequently breaks out in hives:

And listen, when he hives up the way he does, it has nothing to do with allergies. It’s memories. It’s just bad memories popping up on his skin, and it only happens if someone touches him, so people here learn, they just learn, never to touch TooDogs.

The tragedy is that TooDogs doesn’t have anyone like TooDogs in his life. He has a wife (“a Slope widow”), but he barely sees her. He has kids, but he fears he’s been a better dad to the guys on the rig. He has the roughnecks, but the portrait Laskas so delicately paints shows the reader that, good Lord, TooDogs is not Jesus Christ. He needs someone, too.

In a way, Laskas turns out to be that someone. She listened to him. She asked him questions. She understood him. That’s all he ever wanted. That’s all any of us ever want, really.

When I picked up Hidden America, I wondered if Laskas might have edited the story significantly, or if there would be an update on TooDogs—that’s how much I cared about this guy. I found the update first in the acknowledgements, in which Laskas thanks the subjects of the stories. There at the end, the very last words of the book, I found this: “TooDogs, may you rest in peace.” TooDogs, after a hitch on the rig in Alaska, became a “company man.” He was based in Pittsburgh (not too far from Laskas’ home). And on the first day of his new job, he died of a heart attack. He was 52.

Geoff Van Dyke (@GeoffVanDyke) is the deputy editor of 5280 Magazine in Denver. His writing has appeared in Men’s Journal, Outside, Bicycling, and the New York Times.

For more installments of “Why’s this so good?” see our archives. And check back each Tuesday for a new shot of inspiration and insight.

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