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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Sunday, September 5, 2010

All The King's Horses. . .

Humpty Dumpty in Oakland
by Philip K. Dick 
Hardcover: 352 pages.
Publisher: Tor Books 
(Originally published 1986; 
Second edition 2007)
ISBN-13:  9780765316905
Read Aug. 15-19, 2012

To the average reader, Philip K. Dick is a science fiction writer, the celebrated creator of the books on which the popular films Blade RunnerTotal Recall and Minority Report were basedNever mind that all those films bear only a passing resemblance to the Dick novels that supposedly inspired them; suffice to say that Dick has probably been credited with more film plots that he had nothing to do with than just about any other author, living or dead.

But Dick didn't just write science fiction stories that Hollywood doesn't understand. He also wrote a handful of mainstream literary novels that had limited success and appear to have been as obscure to traditional publishers as his science fiction stories were to Hollywood.

Humpty Dumpty in Oakland is one of these. The novel, which appears to be in part based on A Time for George Stavros, an earlier Dick manuscript that has been lost, reads like a Jim Thompson Black Lizard tale crossed with a reminiscence by Charlie Bukowski. 

The main characters are Jim Fergessen, the elderly owner of an Oakland automobile garage whose heart ailments have led him to sell his business and retire. Fergessen's immanent retirement threatens Al Miller, a young, unsuccessful mechanic who rents shop space from him and will be left with no place to run his shoestring business once the garage closes. 

Miller is a young hapless schmuck who, despite pressure from his wife to make something of himself, is going nowhere fast. On the other hand, Fergessen, too, is a hapless schmuck, only older. Although the garage owner is basically unhappy, he has managed to convince himself that he is doing very well.

In an effort to get out of his money jam, Miller takes a stab at blackmail, but hasn't the moxie to follow through. His criminal scheme falls short in part because the man he attempts to extort, Chris Harman, a shadowy record producer who deals in pornographic recordings, is himself a master scammer. 

Harman, a character on the periphery of the main story line, would probably be the central figure in a real Jim Thompson novel. Here, however, he is injected into the plot primarily to torment the two protagonists. 

Miller's half-hearted attempt to scam Harman, though unsuccessful, eventually comes back to haunt him. In the process, the deep strain of paranoia that infects much of Dick's work comes into play. Has Miller been set up from the start? Is he the target of a complex conspiracy? Is his wife a co-conspirator? 

In typical Dickian fashion, various characters seem to transform and mutate as the story proceeds, and the reader is left wondering whether Miller and Fergessen were really the victims of a complicated plot or whether much of what has happened is simply a twisted fantasy on Miller's part.

What gives the book the Thompson feel is the fact that everybody in it is on the make and greed seems to be the engine that drives the story. 

What I liked best about Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, however, was the bleak portrayal of the East Bay's biggest city in the late 1950s. Since Oakland is the setting for some of my own fiction, I love seeing San Francisco's poor relation across  the Bay get the limelight for a change.

Humpty Dumpty in Oakland is quite different from most of Dick's novels and short stories, though it includes some of the basic philosophical and psychological underpinnings of his best know work. 

The book is a downer that doesn't quite jell in some ways. Perhaps its biggest weakness is Dick's inability to maintain the authenticity of his characters' voices: his dialog is fine when non-ethnic characters are talking, but he is slightly off-target when he has a black character in the story speak, or renders the dialog of Fergessen's Greek-born wife. Dick seems to realize these people have a slightly twisted syntax, but his ear isn't good enough to render it with verisimilitude.

By the same token, there isn't much in the way of action in the story, and the confrontations between the main characters are enervating rather than exciting.

Nonetheless, this novel has a gritty noirish atmosphere I found enjoyable. And the aimless, out-of-control quality of the narrative seemed oddly appropriate to me, and gave the book part of its charm.

If you are looking for a traditional crime novel that concludes with the loose ends wrapped up and good triumphant over evil, I'd advise you to skip this book. 

But if you like Phil Dick -- and I do -- give Humpty Dumpty in Oakland a try. I give it four nooses.

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