TRYING TO PUBLISH A FIRST NOVEL is a lot like drilling for oil: the odds of succeeding just aren’t that good. no one knows that better than Cole Thompson, an Abilene native who happens to be both a writer and an oilman. Unlike his compadres in the petroleum business, however, Thompson has turned the industry’s slump to his advantage. During slow times at the rig, the 34-year-old managed to pump out a sweetly comic novel about life in the West Texas oil patch, and no less than Larry McMurtry has helped fuel interest in the book.

In Chocolate Lizards (St. Martin’s Press), Harvard-educated weenie Erwin Vandeveer finds himself stranded and stone-broke in Abilene, where he meets a near-bankrupt wildcatter named Merle Luskey. Erwin ends up signing on as a roughneck and becomes entangled in a cockeyed get-rich-quick scheme. The characters, especially a top-heavy harlot named Tex-Ann, are essentially cartoons. If they had been dreamed up by a non-Texan, they might seem offensive, but Thompson imbues them all with a likable warmth. And Erwin’s new-kid foibles prove a handy way of weaving in an oil-well ABC.

Thompson’s style is smooth and self-assured, but he took a roundabout road to writing. After playing on Cooper High School’s 1982 and 1983 state champion golf teams, he attended Stanford on a golf scholarship, where he earned a degree in philosophy. He then began work on a master’s degree at Rice but decided to switch to creative writing (even though, he says, “The only writing I’d done much of was notes to girls in school”). After three more years of study—at writing programs in Louisiana and Wisconsin—Thompson realized that oil was in his blood. In 1992 he headed home to work for Lytle Creek Operating, the company long run by his father. Like his protagonist, Erwin, Thompson proceeded to learn the business from the ground up. Like Merle, he’s now an operator. “The operator contracts out everything, so you spend a lot of time just sitting and watching,” he says. “I wrote a lot of the book on my laptop in my pickup truck out at the rig.”

After his agent sold Chocolate Lizards (the title is a reference to Erwin’s new brown cowboy boots), Thompson boldly carried a copy of the manuscript to Larry McMurtry’s Archer City bookstore, where he left it with the author’s assistant; a few days later, McMurtry mailed a quote to Thompson’s publisher praising the novel as a “very entertaining example of West Texas oil-field gothic.” (Says Thompson: “My editor was just about jumping out of her pants.”) Friends have helped too: One knew Waylon Jennings’ personal assistant and finagled a glowing quote from the singer, another had played college football with Darrell Royal and persuaded him to write one, and a third knew movie producer Bill Wilson of Pacific Palisades, California, a former Abilenian who snapped up the movie rights. Thompson is especially grateful to his fellow oilmen. “Out in the field you run across some completely amazing and colorful characters,” he says. “They have a certain bravado—a kind of ‘it’s hopeless but not serious’ attitude. That outlook, that charm, is what I really wanted to share by writing this book.”