Humpty Dumpty in Oakland: Philip Dick (1986)

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.”


Filed under Dick Philip, Fiction

19 responses to “Humpty Dumpty in Oakland: Philip Dick (1986)

  1. Blade Runner is one of my all-time favourites, I don’t even dare re-watching it. Do you like David Lynch? I always thought that Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive had a similar atmosphere – at least that’s why I love these two movies.
    In any case I think Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? wil be my first Philip K. Dick, I’ve already got it here.
    A friend of mine used to read a lot of him and he always said the novels were great but the writing in some of them was dodgy.
    The one you read sounds a bit dated with all the references to the time it was written in but still interesting.

    • Some books are dated due to the fact that they are the mouthpieces of the attitudes and prejudices of the time. Dick has a different approach and while he reflects the time, he shows that Jim is a racist while Al isn’t. Jim’s overall rage at the world (partly racial but not entirely) is a large part of his problem, and Dick shows that. The book gives a glimpse into life and attitudes of the time, but the tale doesn’t creak as a result.

      I’ve never really been able to get into Lynch which has always puzzled me as on the surface his work should be the sort of thing I’d really enjoy

  2. leroyhunter

    I spent a little bit of time (a couple of weeks in total) in San Francisco years ago, but I never made it over to Oakland, which I’ve always regretted. There’s somthing about the gritty reputation that makes it a fascinating place, this stunted little sibling of the famous, beautiful city across the bay.

    I’d like to read Dick but I’m aware he’s variable. I’ve thought of starting with The Man in the High Castle but this sounds really good as well. The car lot setting reminds me of Willeford, but that’s just coincidence I guess.

    • Dick gives us a glimpse of a city in flux–just on the brink of change. You’d like the book, and I have some others of his I’ll be getting too this year. What’s so good here is the way the two men interact with one another. As I said, a symbiotic relationship and then when Jim effectively breaks it, Al sees his own destruction, but at the same time, his fate changes too–a sort of noir fiction Castor and Pollux.

  3. Hmm…I don’t like Lynch much myself. I think he makes the audience do his work. He just throws stuff out there and hopes we’ll put it together in Mulholland Drive. I will say, however, that Blue Velvet had some of the greatest weirdo set pieces I’ve seen in film. I’m thinking of Stockwell lip-synching at the ‘party’.

    As for Dick, you’ve got me curious about this one. I did not like Blade Runner much, and I do not like science fiction, usually, I periodically read some to see if I’ve changed my mind as I feel a bit of a snob rejecting an entire genre, but so far, no dice. I liked it as a kid, but most of it is, I think, bad writing.

    I read a few stories by Dick in the American Library collection after watching The Adjustment Bureau, The film was an okay piece of fluff entertainment, and the story was actually better, more cynical, but still nothing great. The other ones I read were standard sci-fi pulp fare. I don’t know why anyone thinks they rate preservation in the library of America.

    Maybe his metier was writing straight fiction, and he was referring to his own hack work with the sci-fi pulps when he wrote that comment! I think I’ll give this one a try. Thanks for another tip!

    • I like that Chris Isaak song from one of Lynch’s films. Couldn’t get that out of my head when it first came out.

      I never knew Philip Dick even wrote anything other than sci-fi so I was surprised to find this. Loved it. Which you probably already guessed.

  4. I haven’t seen Blade Runner (because of the SF tag) and my last attempt at watching a cult SF movie (ie 2001 Space Odissey) ended up with me sleeping soundly on the couch. (literally, I mostly saw monkeys and then a white spaceship and I dozed off.) All this to say I never planned to read Philip K Dick.

    I don’t understand the title of this book. Can you explain it to me?

  5. It’s from the old children’s nursery rhyme:
    Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall
    Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
    All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
    Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

    I think the title is off putting

  6. I’ve read a fair bit of Dick, but not much of his non-sf. I would caution that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? isn’t much like Blade Runner (which I consider a magnificent film incidentally).

    This sounds very good, and very Dickian. Different perspectives on reality, uncertainty as to what’s actually true, a feeling of paranoia, that’s solid Dick territory.

    His output is a bit variable. He wrote a lot and some of it is fun pulp sf, some is ok pulp sf, and some is extremely clever indeed. I consider A Scanner Darkly the finest novel on drug addiction that I’ve read (and I’ve read Burroughs), regardless of genre.

    Dick wrote a lot of non-SF, but like HG Wells (who also wrote a lot of nonSF) it tends to get overlooked. In my experience his long fiction is generally better than his short, which even when reading a lot of Dick and being a major fan I used to often find disappointing.

    Agree it’s not his best title. Sounds good though.

    • Glad you saw this Max as you would appreciate this novel. As I said I haven’t read any other Dick novels, but I’ve seen a number of the films made from the books, and I could see the connection, the themes here too even though it’s not SF. At the same time, even as I say this isn’t SF, I will say that there’s an edge to this novel that made me think that all the elements I’ve picked up from the films are there lurking in a corner. In the final scene something happens, and I’m not sure if it really did.

      • He’s much filmed, though the films generally bear little resemblance to the books.

        He wrote several sf novels set in a kind of fractured 1950s America. In some it becomes apparent that the initially perceived reality is a front for some underlying truth. In one a man discovers that his entire town is a fabrication based on his childhood, intended to protect him from the knowledge of how critical he is to his country’s survival. He thinks he’s doing crossword puzzles when in fact under a layer of brainwashing (for his own protection) he’s working out missile defence strategies. He starts to spot flaws in his 1950s, part of him trying to work out what’s wrong while another part wants desperately to maintain the fiction and avoid the terrible responsibility he bears.

        I may misremember some details there, but the gist is right. Extraordinary writer. Very variable as I say, but at his best well deserving of the attention he’s received.

        Quite expensive this one. I just looked it up on Amazon. The non-sf ones probably don’t shift enough volume to be cheaper.

  7. “initially perceived reality is a front for some underlying truth.”

    You could use that sentence to describe the relationship between Jim and Al. I paid 11 and change for this copy.

  8. leroyhunter

    They actually have this on the shelf in my local book shop, so I’ll pick it up next week – reasonably priced as well.

    Have you seen the Linklater “rotoscope” film of A Scanner Darkly?

  9. I have 16 (!) Philip K. Dick novels (and two short story collections) on my shelf, and only one of them (Confessions of a Crap Artist) belongs to the group of what’s commonly called his “realist” novels. (A bullshit term, like “literary fiction,” which means “not genre fiction.”) I really should be reading more of this stuff, but I hear it’s very hit and miss. Which his science fiction also is, to be honest, but his science fiction is where all of his genuinely brilliant writing is to be found, whereas the “realist” stuff seems more like a curiosity. But now that I own all of his agreed-upon science fiction classics, maybe my next book of his should be more along these lines.

    • I just bought the Library of America set (back to that buying books faster than I can read them)–all Sci fi, and I have Confessions of a Crap Artist on my shelf. I’m leaning towards that as my next Dick novel, actually.

      Humpty Dumpty in Oakland was wonderful–can’t speak for the rest of the non Sci fi. Perhaps I just got lucky on the first go. This one is noir fiction more than anything else.

  10. I haven’t read Dick’s non-SF, but I do find his SF brilliant. The point about the initially perceived reality being a front for some underlying truth is interesting – I think Dick is at his best when he’d dealing with this theme. The novel Ubik, for instance – I can’t say much about it that wouldn’t give things away, but let’s just say that Inception, the film, “borrowed” rather heavily (without acknowledgment) from Ubik. There’s also The Penultimate Truth, which is about a dystopian world where a small group of people keep the whole population of the world in a subterranean labyrinth by constantly feeding them a lie about a “great radioactive war” that is going on over-ground. Both those novels are brilliant – I’d strongly recommend them.

    • I didn’t like the film Inception much and I’ve been told I didn’t “get it.” Anyway, the good news is that I have UBIK. Amazon offered a bunch of Dick titles for 99c some time back and I cashed in. I have to get back to Dick next year. Note to self. Thanks for the suggestion.

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