In Kim Barnes’s unusual new novel, “a bare-foot girl from red-dirt Oklahoma” tells us the events of her (so far, very short) life story. Gin grows up in Oklahoma, among the poorest of the poor. She is raised by her fire-and-brimstone grandfather, who firmly believes that women are vessels of sin. Her mother has come to a bad end, and the only emotional weapons Gin carries are a generous heart and a mindless defiance, a refusal to be looked down upon by anyone.
Precisely because she isn’t supposed to get into trouble with boys, she manages to do just that, losing her virginity on a first date to young Mason McPhee, who is slated to go to college. He was “meant to be the finest public defender to come out of Pottawatomie County, maybe even a judge,” Gin tells us. “He was sure that he could make a difference. He railed against the war in Vietnam and segregation, told me about the marches and protests he attended.” Gin has never met anybody like Mason. “We’ve got to think bigger,” he tells her, “do bigger things, like the Reverend King says.”
Of course, that unfortunate incident in the back seat of his car threatens to put an end to all that. Gin’s grandfather shuns her; Mason’s family takes an extremely dim view of the pregnancy, but Mason vows to do the right thing. In 1967, he marries Gin and gets a job as a roughneck, learning the oil business from the ground up. The young couple are happy, living in their rickety honeymoon digs. Then Gin has a miscarriage, is told that she can’t have any more children, and that phase of their marriage is over.
But life isn’t over for this naive, good-hearted couple. Mason is recruited to go to Saudi Arabia to work for Aramco, which is building an American empire based on Arabian oil. In a twinkling they find themselves in a spacious compound that seems luxurious beyond words to the rough-cut families sent to work there. After a few hours of orientation, Mason is on an oil rig out at sea and Gin is left in the midst of a society tightly controlled by American women, with rules as subtle but ironclad as anything in the British Raj.
In fact, “In the Kingdom of Men” resembles Kipling’s “Plain Tales from the Hills” as much as any other book. The men run the administration of a society made up of darker-skinned and, by definition, inferior people, but the women run the white-skinned men, casting an invisible but exceedingly strong net over the group. The women must not leave the compound unless they’re in the company of a man. They’re not allowed to drive where they can be seen by Arab men. Although alcohol is not allowed, Westerners are given tacit permission to stir up batches of bootleg hootch. And although flirtation is tolerated, adultery is frowned upon — not for moral reasons but for the pressure such behavior might put on the group.
On top of all this, the men who work the oil rigs are not the most elegant, sophisticated people in the world. Their women must teach themselves how to be rich; there’s no point in owning a dozen oyster forks if you don’t know how to eat an oyster. (One of the most effective set pieces here involves a formal dinner party where Gin greets a dish of sherbert with an appetite born of relief, only to find that it’s only for clearing her palate and that she has several more courses to chew through.)
What happens to a woman like Gin, locked up in a place like this? She makes one good girlfriend, fortunately. But she refuses to take golf lessons or learn to play bridge from the boss’s wife, who doesn’t take this at all well. She talks with their driver-escort but senses that she has to be careful, bound as they both are by unseen rules. And she depends on her Indian houseboy, Yash, to plan endless delicious meals. (The menus here are taken in part from Bharti Kirchner’s “The Bold Vegetarian” and are so enticing that you’ll want to stop reading for a while and put together a sumptuous dinner.) The truth is, once Gin has absorbed the luxury, she finds herself feeling imprisoned. At one point, beside herself with cabin fever, she watches as Yash empties the contents of the linen closet on the floor: “Let us fold,” he says, and they spend the afternoon doing just that.
Meanwhile, off base, “accidents” are happening and people are getting killed. Mason, who wants to be doing the right thing, gets involved, and Gin, driven mad by loneliness, gets equally involved in dramas of her own. This isn’t a cloak-and-dagger thriller like “The Firm,” but it’s a culturally complex story about American venality and greed. Those who find out too much are expelled from the compound.
This extensively researched novel isn’t complimentary to either the United States or Saudi Arabia. And it will certainly take the wind out of the sails of anyone who yearns for the “exotic.”
“In the Kingdom of Men” teaches a lesson some of us have already learned about the banality of evil, but it’s good for us, as American readers, to be reminded of it again.
See reviews books regularly for The Washington Post.