Exploring the dramatic world of the North Sea oil fields

Offshore, by A. Alvarez. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 190 pp. $15.95. A. Alvarez's ``Offshore'' is a richly detailed excursion into an exhausting, lucrative, dangerous, isolated, intensely physical, and oddly other-worldly world -- the North Sea oil fields.

In the process of assembling this fine piece of non-fiction, Alvarez spoke with public relations officers and roughnecks, engineers and divers, crane operators and meteorologists, and from their assembled remarks a vivid picture of an oil rig's workings emerges.

He tells how advances in the field of plate tectonics led to the discovery of the fields, what the helicopter pilots who ferry the workers between the platforms think of their work, how the discovery altered the way of life on the Shetland Islands (where the oil was pumped ashore), and just about everything else one might want to know about the author's chosen subject.

But we enjoy literary journalists like Alvarez not just for the simple conveyance of fact. In a book like ``Offshore,'' we expect the facts to be enlarged, as we expect a sculptor to do something with his piece of marble, and that Alvarez does as well. For what interests him -- by admission ``a man with a sedentary middle-class occupation who wanted, just once, to be in a place where people deal with things other than pieces of paper and can see and quantify the results of their work'' -- is the curious juxtaposition of ultra-sophisticated technology and the human touch.

Thus, he finds the crane operator to be an artist who plys the controls of his immense machine ``like a concert pianist''; Alvarez has nothing but admiration for the deep-sea divers who inspect the foundations of the platforms that serve as home and workplace.

And the divers, he tells us, during their four weeks on the job (they then get four off), ``live at the atmospheric pressure at which they [are] working and decompress only when they [are] ready to return to the beach. . . . They work for 21 days in 8- to 12-hour shifts, without ever breathing ordinary air, then decompress for three or four days.''

But the real dimensions of Alvarez's interest are made clear in the following passage, a meditation on the paradox that is offshore oil. ``This combination of heavy engineering and high precision, of brute strength and delicacy, seemed to me not just fascinating but also, in some curious way, moving, like the scene in the old Frankenstein movie when the monster plays with the child.''

There were times in ``Offshore'' when I felt that Alvarez wanted to like what he saw in the North Sea more than he does, but his respect for the quietly heroic efforts of the oil field workers balances his suspicion of big business technology. Still, Alvarez consistently ferrets out interesting facts, and in a relatively small space provides a dramatic portrait of an industry that is equal parts frontier spirit and space-age technology, and one we've hitherto taken for granted.

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