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Book Review – Voices from the Street by Philip K Dick

This book represents an impossibility: a new novel from a man who died in 1982. But here it is, Voices from the Street, a novel PKD wrote in 1952-3, when he was around twenty five years old. This is not the earliest surviving PKD manuscript; that honour goes to Gather Yourselves Together, which must surely be the great man’s earliest and most obscure work. Even I haven’t read it, given that it was published by an obscure small press in 1994. Voices from the Street is the last of PKD’s manuscripts to be published. As of now, everything PKD wrote that still survives (and there are apparently at least three early novel manuscripts that have long since disappeared) has been published. This represents, as one reviewer said, PKD’s belated induction into the American literary canon.

So what is Voices from the Street about? It isn’t a SF novel, for a start. No, it’s about a young man called Stuart Hadley who works in a TV store. This is 1952, in a small town called Cedar Groves, California. Given this novel’s vintage, that fact is interesting in itself. Here we get an insight into a world that must surely now have been buried under the nightmare of modern Californian life. In fact, I have often thought that the California of the 50s PKD describes is not altogether unlike the Perth, Western Australia I grew up in from 1990-2003. Hadley works for a man named Jim Fergesson, a middle-aged worry wart who plans to expand his business to a second store. This relationship is based on PKD’s own relationship with a man called Herb Hollis, whom PKD worked for the in late forties and early fifties. Hadley is married to a young woman called Ellen (perhaps based on PKD’s then current wife, Kleo). At the beginning of the novel, Ellen is pregnant with their first child. Hadley has it all: a wife, a child, a job, and yet he has nothing.

When we first meet Hadley, he’s in a jail cell, having gone on a bender the previous night. We soon learn that Hadley is well and truly going off the rails. He doesn’t apply himself in his job, he isn’t very nice to his wife (he loses money and stays out all night drinking), and he complains about pretty much everything. In fact, it’s hard to feel a great deal of sympathy for him. Herein lies the novel’s first weakness: the protagonist is a whining asshole. Voices from the Street represents a divergence from PKD’s usual sympathetic (although often pathetic) protagonists. The PKD of this novel is an angry young man indeed, and there’s precious little to smile about here. PKD would make the ‘quest for the human’ his mantra, and yet Stuart Hadley represents nothing if not the ‘inhuman’ android personality of PKD’s ‘dark-haired girls.’

This novel starts out bleak and goes downhill from there. By page 124, I found that I hated Stuart Hadley. He is an absolute prick to his wife, his boss, and his friends. Astonishingly, there’s a fair bit of racism in this book, and I’m not sure it can be said to be dis-endorsed by PKD. Hadley thinks of his friends, the Golds, as sub-men (they are Jewish). He describes them as dirty, pathetic and dwarf-like. Later, he calls them kikes. There is a black preacher called Theodore Beckheim, who is part of the Watchmen of Jesus, whom Hadley goes to see speak. Later, when Hadley discovers that Beckheim is sleeping with a white woman, Marsha Frazier, he calls him a ‘big black nigger.’ And there are some neo-Nazi types in the book, too, who are treated with ambivalence. In other words, it’s hard to me to understand how the PKD I know – the man who had a black spaceship captain in his first novel Solar Lottery, the man who said evil was ‘actual, like cement’ in reference to the Nazis in The Man in the High Castle – could have written Voices from the Street.

There is so much hatred and angst in this book. Hadley has a sister called Sally, for whom he apparently has (or at least once had) incestuous feelings. Sally is described very sensuously, in much more loving detail than Hadley’s wife, Ellen. In fact, the baby growing inside Ellen is compared to a tumour, and her pregnant condition is said to be ‘obese.’ Sally’s husband is even more offensive than Hadley himself. But his greatest crime would appear to be that he has taken Sally away from her brother. Characters are considered to lack their own reality: they are in fact projections of certain parts of Hadley’s personality (at least according to Hadley himself). There’s an awful tumult in this novel, one so searing that it made me feel ill reading it. The second half of the book focuses on Hadley’s relationship with Marsha Frazier, a thin thirty-ish woman who edits a fascist, anti-Semitic magazine called Succubus. Hadley does in fact rail against Frazier’s anti-Semitism, but this doesn’t stop him from considering himself part of a higher race than the likes of the Golds.

It’s not all bad, however. One of the strengths of this book is in the physical description of the TV store Hadley works in. This a real, concrete location, a solidity against the terrible flux of the world at large. But Hadley is so bored of his life that he is susceptible to virtually any kind of fad or scam: hence his interest in the Watchmen of Jesus. There is a section in which Marsha takes Hadley up the coast to meet Beckheim, his idol, but the meeting disappoints him. Hadley tries to submit to Beckheim and/or Marsha herself, but finds himself back at home, late at night, ripping up his membership card for the society. At this point I wondered if Hadley’s angst was based on some kind of sexual repression, but the novel seeks to defeat such speculation. When Hadley finally does cheat on his wife with Marsha, the outcome is shocking.

Hadley’s fall in the final third of the novel is piteous and horrifying. Time for a big spoiler alert. IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS, STOP READING. Here is my summary of the events of the final third: Hadley takes Marsha to a hotel to sleep with her, but he ends up raping and beating her brutally. At one point, Marsha’s pathetic submission is compared to that of a small child (when he forces her to drink some bourbon out of a paper cup). This is quite shocking to me. Today, such behaviour would be termed aggravated sexual assault. Hatred flows outward in all directions, and Marsha becomes Hadley’s victim. He steals her car, leaving her at the hotel, and goes home. But it isn’t over. No, Hadley then proceeds to snatch his infant son from his cot (Ellen is fast asleep) before going on the mother of all benders. Then he gets horribly drunk, ends up in a fight or perhaps a series of fights. He calls his friend a kike, tries unsuccessfully to see Beckheim again (he isn’t allowed into the meeting as he’s ripped up his membership card) and stumbles around. During this time, Hadley’s son Pete is still in the stolen car. Hadley goes to the TV store late at night, where Fergesson is playing cards with some friends, and demands the $100 he is owed. He gets the money, gets himself fired, and goes out drinking again. This goes on for several hours. Eventually Hadley ends up at a gay bar (!) but he resists the overtures of the ‘fairies’ who try to care for him. Eventually he is hit by a car, taken in by some kindly Germans, before escaping and checking into a cheap hotel with the last of his money. Hadley goes back to the stolen car, finding that the window has been smashed and the baby removed. Then he goes to a car yard, tries to buy a car (but he has no money) and then decides to steal several hundred dollars from his now ex-boss.

The final scene of destruction is incredible. This is, in fact, powerful writing. Hadley goes to the TV store, finds that Fergesson has changed the lock, and sees Fergesson in the upstairs window. Then we switch to the older man’s point of view for the finale, in which Hadley basically uses his body as a human battering ram to get into the store. First he throws a brick through the window (at which time Fergesson calls the police) but he can’t get through. So he smashes his way through the broken glass, to the horror of all concerned. At this point, Hadley is little different to the machine in Terminator 2. He’s no longer human, and nothing will stand in his way.

Then we get the aftermath. It’s several months later and Hadley is in poor shape. He’s horribly disfigured and is now blind in one eye. Incredibly, Ellen has taken him back, and they are moving in to an extremely small and filthy dungeon of an apartment. Hadley is too weak to work so Ellen gets a job, and Hadley putters around the apartment, fixing the place up. He is calm now. But something terrible has happened to him. Hadley is still technically alive, but his soul is dead. He’s an android, devoid of emotion, operating with only half of his brain (the other half is said to be silent). The book ends with Hadley planning to open a new repair business.

I don’t think I’ve ever read as disturbing (and disturbed) a novel as Voices from the Street. It’s a distillation of hatred, fear and misery, and comes as a complete surprise to me. I’ve read something like 50 books by PKD, and not one of them comes close to being so terribly inhuman. It’s almost as though this book served as some kind of purgative for the youthful PKD. He wrote all of his rage, all his racism and violent tendencies, into this novel. This is not the PKD I know. This is a disturbed young man whose demons overcame him. Never again would he write something as awful as this. I’m glad to have read it, as it does shed some (unflattering) light onto the young PKD, but it’s disturbing nonetheless. It’s a good job PKD never got this published during his lifetime, nor, I expect, would he have wanted to.

Voices from the Street does have a sort of strange second life, however. Upon completing it, I went to my PKD bookshelf and picked up another of PKD’s mainstream novels, Humpty Dumpty in Oakland. Written in 1960 and published posthumously in 1986, it is the tale of one Jim Fergesson. I read the first three pages, and was astonished to discover that it contains virtually the exact same opening as Voices from the Street. Several phrases are identical. I propose to re-read Humpty Dumpty in Oakland in order to discover just how close the two novels are. Given that Voices from the Street was written in 1952-3, and Humpty Dumpty in Oakland in 1960, it seems obvious that PKD re-cast the former novel in the form of the latter. There’s nothing unusual about a writer doing this with one of his early, unpublished manuscripts (I’ve done the same myself) but it does surprise me that no one has mentioned the similarities between the two books. More on this later.

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