“The effect of property on the human soul.”
I always told myself that the first Philip Dick novel I read would be Blade Runner. The film version (sometimes given the label sci-fi noir) makes my top film list, and I’ve had a copy of the book on a shelf for years. Recently, however, I came across Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, a novel Dick completed in 1960 . The novel was initially rejected by publishers and was finally published posthumously in 1986.
As the title suggests, the book is set in Oakland, California. It’s the late 1950s and the tale focuses on the dark ambiguous relationship between two men: 58-year-old car mechanic Jim Fergessen and the much younger used car salesman, Al Miller. Jim has recently discovered that he has a heart problem, and haunted by nightmares that he’ll die under the hood of a car, he puts his shop and the used car lot next door that he rents to Al up for sale. When the novel begins, Jim arrives at work with the intention of telling Al that he’s sold the garage and the car lot for $35,000. It sold faster and easier than he expected, and although Jim doesn’t care what the buyer plans to do with the land, his biggest concern is how Al will take the news:
No, he won’t make a big scene, he thought. Maybe one of those glances, out of the corner of his glasses. And grin while he puffs on his cigarette. And he won’t say anything; I’ll have to do the talking. He’ll get me to talk more than I want to.
Al and Jim have a symbiotic relationship with Al relying on Jim to help fix up the junkers that Al sells on his lot, and Al helping Jim with some of the heavy work involved in car repair. Al isn’t happy at the news of the sale as it’s likely that he’ll be turfed out when his lease is up, and he only makes a marginal living as it is–without Jim’s services, he’ll probably sink. While the news of the sale leaves an awkwardness between the men, it causes explosive reactions in the men’s wives. Jim’s Greek wife, Lydia thinks that Al takes advantage of Jim and envies his success, and Al’s wife Julie, believes Jim “owes” her husband and should ‘gift’ him the car lot.
A major development occurs when successful record company owner, Chris Harman stops by to see Jim. Harman hears about the sale and pushes Jim to invest in a new development in Marin County. Jim, who’d convinced himself that he was looking forward to retirement, suddenly sees his $35,000 as a way of leveraging up the social scale and being “part of the new world,” and meanwhile Al is convinced that Harman is taking Jim for a ride. From this point, there’s an increasing sense of paranoia in both Al and Jim which is fueled by their wives and by certain incidents. One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is how Dick shows different realities for his two main characters. This is accomplished in several ways: Al becomes suspicious of Harman’s motives and tries to warn Jim. In turn, Jim becomes suspicious of Al’s motives. Who is correct? When we begin to attribute specific motivations to the behaviour of others, our interpretations of their actions tend to seem real, but are they really? Philip Dick’s tale is so cleverly written that it is entirely possible to read the story in a couple of different ways.
Another fascinating aspect of the tale is the parallel realities of the white and the black worlds that co-exist but are still mostly separate. Al and his wife rent a $35 a month apartment in a “non-exclusive neighbourhood” (which is a euphemism for saying the building is not ‘whites only’). Al likes his black neighbours and enjoys their company, but the apartment is continually in danger of being condemned:
Sometimes shorts in the walls kept the power off for several days. When Julie ironed, the wall heated up too hot to be touched. All of the people in the building believed that eventually the building would be burned to the ground, but most of them were out of it during the day, and they seemed to believe that because of that they were somehow safe.
Several black characters see Harman as a dangerous man. Are they correct? Since they operate in a parallel society, do they see a different side of his behaviour?
Neither Al nor Jim are particularly likeable characters. Jim, a fan of Joe McCarthy and Nixon, is a flaming racist, full of inchoate rage, and Al is a crook disguised as a used car salesman. Here’s Jim on his customers:
It’s fine for them, he said to himself. I kept their cars going. They can call me any time, day or night; they know I’ll always come and tow them in and fix them where they are, broken down at the side of the road. They don’t have to belong to A.A.A. even, because they have me. And I never cheated them or did work that didn’t need to be done. So naturally, he thought, they’ll be unhappy to hear I’m quitting. They know they’ll have to go to one of those new garages where everything’s clean, no grease anywhere, and some punk comes out in a white suit with a clipboard and fountain pen, smiling. And they tell him what’s wrong and he writes it down. And some union mechanic shows up later in the day with one finger stuck up his ass and leisurely works on their car. And every minute they’re paying. That slip goes into that machine, and it keeps count. They’re paying while he’s on the crapper or drinking a cup of coffee or talking on the phone or to some other customer. It’ll cost them three or four times as much.
Thinking that, he felt anger at them, for being willing to pay all that to some lazy union mechanic they never saw and didn’t know. If they can pay all that, why can’t they pay it to me? he asked himself. I never charged no seven dollars an hour. Somebody else’ll get it.
Al will do anything to get a sale and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to dump a junker on someone. He doesn’t hesitate to fiddle with the odometer, and he also ”re-groove [s] tires“
If the guy so much as backs over a hot match, the tires’ll blow. But he thinks he’s getting a set of good tires, so he goes ahead and buys the car when he otherwise might not. It’s part of the business; everybody, or nearly everybody, does it. You have to move your stock. The main thing is to have a story that’ll explain everything. If you can’t get a car started, you always say it’s out of gas. If a window won’t roll up or down, you say the car just came in this morning and your boy hasn’t had a chance to go over it yet. You have to be able to come back. If the customer notices that the mat is worn from wear, you say the car was driven by a woman who wore high-heeled shoes. If the seat covers are torn up from wear, maybe from kids, you say the owner had a pet dog he took with him, and in a week the dog’s nails did it. You always give a story.
While the novel explores Jim’s denial of mortality through his decision to use his new capital to become one of those “enterprising men,” simultaneously the plot follows Al’s idea to also leverage the sale as a way for him to get ahead in life:
My whole life, he told himself, my whole future, depends on it. Can I do it? I have to. I owe it to Julie, and to myself; in fact, to my family. I can’t wait any longer; I can’t go on drifting like this. This is opportunity knocking, this guy Chris Harman; this is the way it’s been set up and if I ignore it I’ll never be given another chance. That’s the way it always is.
It’s very difficult to slot Humpty Dumpty in Oakland into any neat genre category. It’s not exactly crime fiction–although crime lurks under the surface of the narrative. Ultimately I’d argue that this is noir fiction–a bleak tale in which the fate of two flawed characters synergistically manufacture their own destruction in an ever-expanding cycle of paranoia:
Boldness, he thought. You have to be bold. Even ruthless. Or otherwise they’ll get you. They’re always in wait, trying to pull you down to their level; naturally when you get up there they resent it. They envy. You ignore that, however. Like Nixon does; he stands and sneers when they insult him, throw rocks, even spit. Risks his life.
Finally there’s even a snide little aside about writers of science-fiction: “It must be easy to write that stuff; they must bat it out.”