Book Review – Humpty Dumpty in Oakland by Philip K Dick
Not everyone likes PKD’s mainstream novels, almost all of which remained unpublished in his lifetime. They are often criticised for being bleak, dull or meaningless. There are plenty of people who say that they love PKD’s SF, but hate his mainstream works.
I am not one of those people.
I have been, and remain, fascinated by the worlds PKD created, either SF or mainstream. For me, his mainstream novels have a sort of ‘slow burn’ that complement rather than contradict his zany SF worlds. Humpty Dumpty in Oakland is not the most well known of these mainstream efforts, most of which were written in the fifties, nor is it the best. It is, however, the last PKD would write. After this, in 1960, PKD would write The Man in the High Castle, the book which won him a Hugo Award and a sense that he could merge his mainstream and SF interests into one career. So Humpty Dumpty in Oakland represents the end of the line for PKD’s mainstream career.
The first few pages are so similar to the opening of Voices from the Street that I wondered whether it was a recast of that earlier book. I am both right and wrong in this assertion. Humpty Dumpty in Oakland does feature a character by the name of Jim Fergesson, same as the earlier novel, but here his trajectory is very different from that of Voices. There can be no doubt, however, that PKD cannibalized the opening scene of Voices for Humpty Dumpty in Oakland. There are several things that are virtually identical in both books: the Negro as an ‘early morning street sweeper,’ Fergesson ‘killing the nightlight with his hand,’ and the health food store across the street. There’s one important difference, however: now Fergesson runs an Auto Repair shop, not a TV & Radio store. And there is no Stuart Hadley working for him, although Humpty Dumpty in Oakland‘s other main character, Al Miller, might be a recast of Hadley. No, it seems that Humpty Dumpty in Oakland is in fact a recast of a lost novel called A Time for George Stavros (according to Lawrence Sutin’s essential biography of PKD). But elements of Voices remain. Those two novels stand at opposite ends of PKD’s fruitless mainstream career: Voices from 1952-3 and Humpty from 1960.
There are other important differences between the novels discusses above. Humpty Dumpty in Oakland is set in Oakland, California, and Fergesson (who has aged a decade since we last saw him in Voices) is selling his shop, not buying another. His relationship with Al Miller is an unhappy one: the younger man rents a section of the old man’s lot for ‘Al’s Auto Sales.’ Unfortunately, Al’s cars are wrecks, and Al himself is an unlikable con man. Al Miller doesn’t exactly work for Fergesson, but the relationship is a parasitic one. PKD alternates chapters between Fergesson and Miller, although he isn’t adverse to sticking with one character for a few chapters when the need arises. Here, again, we see PKD’s genius for weaving the lives of his characters together. A third major character, Chris Harman, is introduced subtly. Harman is a businessman of some kind who comes to Fergesson to get his car looked at. But it seems that Harman is also the producer of ‘dirty records,’ a fact Miller seeks to exploit through blackmail.
Meanwhile, Harman has a proposition for Fergesson. Fergesson has already sold his auto repair business for around $40,000 (which must have been a tidy sum in 1960) and he’s planning on retiring, as his health is failing him. But Harman convinces him to invest his money in a new repair business in the newly-developed Marin County (where PKD himself lived during this time). Thus we have a situation where Harman is trying to sweet talk Fergesson, while simultaneously Miller is trying to blackmail Harman. It’s an elegant setup, and one PKD runs with for all it’s worth. I noticed at this point that there is an awful lot of interior monologue in this book. We are privy to the innermost thoughts of Fergesson and Miller, which mostly consist of various plans and concerns and (for Miller) get rich schemes.
Chapter Six is probably the highlight of Humpty Dumpty in Oakland for me. Here we see Fergesson driving out to Marin Country to investigate the location of the proposed new business. He drives through an unearthly maze of freeway constructions (which remind me of the developments I have seen here in Perth in the 1990s and 2000s) until he finally reaches Marin Gardens. We get a sense that there is a terrible void opening up beneath Fergesson. His heart is labouring, his palms are sweaty, and he might not live out the day. But when he reaches his destination, he meets a young salesman who seems to want to discuss science fiction, not business! The young man is reading Anderson’s Brain Wave, a once famous but now obscure novel. When Fergesson finally convinces the salesman to show him around, the old man takes a tumble. Sensing his own mortality, he gets back in his car and heads home. For a man of 32 or so, PKD sure knew how to imagine the fragile life of an older man on the brink of a heart attack. We feel Fergesson’s condition viscerally, as it is ourselves who are dying.
Meanwhile, Al Miller’s scheme for blackmailing Harman appears to have backfired, and in a strange twist, Miller ends up working for Harman’s Teach Records. Initially, it seems he is to manage a new classical music line, but then it appears that his job is to travel around California looking for a new barbershop quartet. I kid you not. Miller is happy enough to go along with this, as is his long-suffering wife. Unfortunately, Miller is a complete fuck-up. He’s actually insane, in a calm way. He does appear to be able to ‘level’ with anyone. As Harman eventually realises, he’s a bullshit artist, not a real man. Even more scathingly, Miller’s friend Tootie Dolittle calls him ‘Humpty Dumpty,’ in the sense that he just hangs around on his wall, waiting to fall off. And fall he does. Eventually we come to a scene in which Miller is at Harman’s extravagantly-built house, about to head off to look for that barbershop quartet. But then Jim Fergesson arrives in a terrible state; by this stage he is so ill that he can barely speak. And then sparks fly.
The antipathy between Fergesson and Miller is pretty much the main core of this novel, and here it comes to a head, to the detriment of both parties. Harman says something about not mixing business with friendship, but it is too late. Inexplicably, Miller commits a kind of professional suicide by admitting that it was he who tried to blackmail Harman (Harman thinks there is a Negro conspiracy against him). Furthermore, Miller claims to be an agent of some shadowy organisation out to get Harman. This is just insane stuff, and Miller fails in this strategem. But not before old man Fergesson dies of the heart attack he so feared. In a complex resolution, Fergesson’s widow Lydia appeals to Miller for help: she wants to stop the check that the old man had written to Harman just before his death. Miller succeeds in this aim, but becomes a targeted man as a result. His only valuable car, a 1932 Marmon (whatever that is or was), is smashed up by unknown assailants. Then Lydia, seeing this, offers to pay Miller $2000 for the car, as a way of saying thank you. Miller is happy to take the money, and begins to plot his escape.
And so Miller and his wife get on a Greyhound bus and get the hell out of California. They don’t get far. It isn’t long before his wife (I’ve forgotten her name and can’t be bothered going into the other room to get the novel) decides to leave him for good. Miller is arrested shortly after by the police in Salt Lake City, and returned to Oakland. His crime? Swindling Lydia Fergesson out of $2000 and then leaving the state. He is forced to pay the money back, and then receives an unexpected visitor: Chris Harman. Harman, far from seeking to finish Miller off, instead offers him a reprieve, and a job. Miller is happy to accept, but he is a broken man. His friend Tootie tells him so, and then we find Miller in an abject state at his car lot, filling a bag with sand. It is like this that the Negro realtor Mrs Lane finds him. She recognises that he is in a poor state, and offers to drive him home. The end.
It’s hard to imagine a less satisfactory resolution to a book than the last third of Humpty Dumpty in Oakland. The two ‘protagonists’ (if they can be called that) are petty and mean. One of them dies of a heart attack, and the other has his dreams broken. There’s very little sense of redemption here. No, this is a bleak and dark book, and it’s no wonder that the publishers of the day were not interested. From looking at Dave Hyde’s extremely useful PKDweb (http://www.philipkdickfans.com/pkdweb/) I discovered that the publishers were able to sum up Humpty Dumpty in Oakland‘s failings thus: “One is left asking, at the end, what the book has really been about, what the author is trying to do and say in it. As with earlier Dick novels, it simply doesn’t add up to enough.”
And that’s fair enough. As I said before, this novel reads like a dead-end. But PKD’s next book, The Man in the High Castle, would prove to be an extraordinary new beginning. A note on publication. I am a proud owner of the (admittedly ex-library) first edition of Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, which was published in the UK in 1986 by Victor Gollancz. There have been a few UK editions over the years, but none in the U.S. until now. In November ’07, Tor released a new hardcover edition of Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, which I believe to be the first American edition. If you’re a PKD fan, and you haven’t read this book, then here’s your chance.