Long before he became Science Fiction’s best know paranoid, Philip K. Dick wrote several mainstream novels. Long overlooked and forgotten, they were finally published in England several years after his death and in the United States in 2007. Dick’s Science Fiction is characterized by paranoia and by plot twists that reveal what the reader, and the main character, thought was real is not. Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, though set in the real world of 1960, feels right at home in Philip K. Dick’s paranoid world view.
The novel’s two main characters share a common workspace. Jim Ferguson is an older man forced into retirement from the auto garage he runs and owns by a bad heart. Al Miller, a younger man, runs a low-end used car lot in space he rents from Jim. The two have a tortured relationship. Ferguson at turns needs and is repelled by Miller. Some times he feels sorry for him and wants to lend him a leg-up; other times he turns on him with venom, berating him for his lack of ambition and the dirty tricks he uses to sell cars that have no value. At times, Al tries to look out for Ferguson, to protect him from shady dealers who might want to take advantage of him. Other times he rails against the older man for selling his business leaving Al in the lurch.
Like In Milton Lumky Territory, reviewed here, Humpty Dumpty in Oakland is a novel about work. The ins-and-outs of running a garage, running a used car lot, and later running an independent record company and land development business, make up much of the novel’s plot. It is rare to see a portrayal of an average working life in modern fiction. Philip Dick’s portrayal gets at the “quiet desperation” of so many men trying to eek out a living on the margins of society, fearing that those with more money and more power have stacked the deck stacked against them. It’s easy to feel for Philip Dick’s protagonists.
Even to feel for a shyster used-car salesman like Al Miller.
It’s also easy to see why these early novels by Philip Dick were rejected by publishers. Philip Dick’s science fiction elevates the pulp nature of the genre, takes it to a level where his paranoia becomes a comment on modern society. His realistic fiction makes that paranoia seem, frankly, just paranoid. Science Fiction is considered by many to be a lower genre of fiction, it largely was in the early 1960’s. But I’d argue that Philip K. Dick had to take a step down into a lower genre in order to rise. He stooped to conquer. If you’re curious about him, go with his classic Science Fiction, A Scanner Darkly or The Man in the High Castle or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. If you’re already a fan of those and want to know how the author got there, you might want to check out Humpty Dumpty in Oakland.