Fiction Reviews


Humpty Dumpty in Oakland

(1986 / 2015) Philip K. Dick, Gollancz, £9.99, pbk, 252pp, ISBN 978-1-473-20957-2

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Though Gollancz plainly label this as Ďscience fictioní it soon becomes apparent that it isnít!  This is a lovely, down to Earth Steinbeckian comedy-tragedy with strong emphasise on the tragedy, set in the late 1950ís as the jazz age gives way to Rock & Roll. One character made his fortune by pirate labelling barbershop quartet music collected from across the States.

Though written in 1960, Dick gave up trying to publish it after several rejections. This was possibly as he was already established as an SF author as Humpty-Dumpty is a fine novel, that is very different to what was already making Dickís name for him. It was not to see the light of day until 1986, four yearís after the authorís death, and it has only reached a British readership in 2015.

It is about Al Miller, an Oakland San Francisco based Willy Loman style American Dream also-ran. He works as a minor-league car mechanic and second hand car salesman leasing a repair shop on the bigger garage plot owned by the aging Jim Ferguson who is highly respected by his customers but trapped in a frosty marriage. His wife hassles him and despises Al. She wonít let Jim rest despite his medical orders to take things easy. Alís wife is equally unpleasant, and convinced that Jim should simply bequeath the money from selling the car-lot off to Al in its entirety.

When Jim is forced to retire due to his diagnosed severe heart condition, Al becomes frightened for his own financial future. If Jim sells the garage business Al could end up out of work. Learning then that Jim has been approached about investing his retirement funds in a real estate business run by an eccentric and reclusive millionaire who Jim had fixed cars for over the years, Al suspects his friend is being conned and nobly but rashly sets out to sabotage the plans, ruining his own life on the basis of increasingly paranoid wild assumptions.

The story seems confused about which of its two main protagonists to focus on. We get both points of view for half of the book. The story then shifts emphasis half way through, from the more interesting Jim Ferguson onto Al, the Humpty-Dumpty of the title, a self-broken man who simply canít accept that everyone round him is trying to help him and rejecting many kind offers of help that might never arise again. He is one of literatureís great losers.

Only one character references science fiction at all. When Jim seeks a meeting with his millionaire benefactor he meets one of his associates who has a box full of SF books which he reads from despite not fully understanding why they appeal to him. He reels off the names of several authors of the time, effectively box-ticking Dickís influences and associates. He envies the genreís writers for making easy money from simply tapping into their imaginations. This is Dick gently sending up his own then modest success and his contemporaries.

The treatment of black people is sensitively handled in a pre-civil rights era which seems quite revolutionary and forward looking. They are kindly and offer advice to Al though he is mildly racist, His own business succeeds because he sells his cars cheaper to the black community than many of his competitors. Jim holds the local black community in more disdain. The well-meant advice Jim gets from his black friends ultimately sets him on the wrong course of action, trying to bring down a successful but benevolent capitalist and destined to bring about the destruction only of himself.

Al lives in an apartment in the black community himself and experiences many of their discomforts and privations himself. The apartment electrics are so bad that his wifeís ironing risks starting a tenement fire. Al knows his black friends face such hardships just for being black while he is only in that situation through his laziness and poor business sense.

Harman, the millionaire is the weakest and least credible character, a saintly crook who tries to put everything right with his money. He is presented as honest despite his pirate recording label business (named Teach after the pirate Blackbeard, William Teach), and shady real estate dealing. He is ultimately too good to be true, but his actions serve as the main catalyst for actions and fatal decisions made by both Al and Jim.

Though Alís stubborn and skewed perception of events blows things out of proportion and influences situations, there is no SF or fantasy involved here. This is a carefully controlled study of false reasoning and a basically good but deeply untrusting man leaping to very negative and ultimately destructive conclusions.

The book seems dated now but if accepted when it was first circulated by Dick it might well have been seen as one of the finest works of its day. Had it been successfully published, Dick may well have diverted away from his SF interests and offered a very different kind of literature than we came to know and love. He would undoubtedly have still been a giant in the literary field.

Arthur Chappell


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