Humpty Dumpty in Oakland by Philip K Dick

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Humpty Dumpty in Oakland by Philip K Dick

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: The rapid disintegration of a friendship in late 1950s America is probably not the Dick novel you're expecting. An easy and intriguing read that left this reviewer uncertain as to its intrinsic merit.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: July 2015
Publisher: Gollancz
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1473209572

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Dick is known primarily as a science fiction writer, most famously for the novel that spawned the film Blade Runner.

I read that novel - Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? - when I was about ten or eleven, a good ten years or so before the film came out and – to be fair – a good five years or so before I was fully capable of understanding the philosophical and ethical issues embedded in it. Not before, however, I was capable of asking the kind of questions that would get me the kind of answers that form my standpoint on those issues.

This is only relevant because I then completely forgot about the author. When I saw a PKD novel on the shelves, knowing embarrassingly little more about the man, I expected something in a similar vein.

I got something entirely different and, if I'm honest, I'm not entirely sure what I make of it.

Oakland, California. The late 1950s. Jim Fergesson is an old man. He's a self-made man, insofar as he's made anything. He's got a garage and a wife that loves him, a self-educating, Greek, home-loving woman much younger than he is – who has her own views on how the world should be run. Fergesson worries that he will die under one of his cars. He has a heart condition. And he worries that he'll die on the shop floor. He is old. He has a right to retire. So he does.

He sells up. This nets him a reasonable sum of money which a regular customer suggests might benefit from a certain investment opportunity.

Al Miller is a used car salesman of the traditional kind. He's a low level conman, making out the cars are better than they are to turn a quick buck. He's barely breaking even despite his wiles and the low rent Fergesson is charging him on the sub-lot and the free help the old man gives him on the heavy work. He's also got a wife who thinks she's better than he is. She might be right.

Fergesson's announcement of the sale brings these old friends into conflict – a conflict that can only worsen when Miller finds evidence that investment opportunity might be a scam…

This is a book of its time. Back then, maybe 58 years old, with or without a heart condition was considered old enough to give you the right to retire. It's a notion that scares me somewhat. I'm aiming to retire not so far past 58 as it happens. I'm just not planning on being old when I do. The cars, the new out-of-town development opportunities, the beginning of the roll-out of the self-improvement bandwagon, the whole notion that everyone could be happy and could get ahead if they only but tried, has 1950s American optimism woven through it.

Sadly, the core of the book is the reality of the broken dream. Our two protagonists are meant to be friends, and yet their relationship disintegrates into pettiness and spite and mutual retaliation in a rapid decline that leaves one of the them dead and the other on the run. They both work hard in their way, and none of it is appreciated, none of it really delivers.

Attitudes to race are interesting read 50 years on…the Dolittles were the first middle class Negroes that he had known or even heard of. They owned more property than anyone else that he had met since coming to the Bay Area from St Helena, and Mrs Dolittle – who personally ran the string of rental properties – was as mean and stingy as other landladies that he had run up against. Being a Negro had not made her any more humanitarian.

I can read that a number of ways, and have no way of knowing which one the author intended. The book wasn't published during his life, so he never had to respond to it.

Famed for his sci-fi work, it seems Dick struggled to get his realistic offerings published and appreciated. I suspect the lack of narrative drive might have been the reason. There's much to appreciate in here, stylistically simple, dialogue is sharply observed You not got Glamour Tootie said. That it is in one word. You nothing but ditch-water walking around on two feet. Nowadays, that patois might be felt to be racist disparagement – but I can believe people did speak like that. In style I find echoes of the great Chandler, just telling it like it is.

Unfortunately Dick doesn't have Chandler's knack for redemption. None of the characters in here elicit any sympathy. And for all the plotting and threats and get-out-of-town-quick moments, it does indeed come across as just another slice of life among the less fortunate. Even Al's arrest doesn't stir him to action. Everything just, kind of, is.

Maybe that's exactly the point that Dick wanted to make. It's one of those that you really have to read for yourself just to find out whether it works for you – or it doesn't. I enjoyed the read, but ended up thinking: is that it, then?

For the more classic Dick experience you can't beat Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick.

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