A great fall

He calls it a terrible fantasy. Jim Fergessen has turned it over in his head a lot lately—the mindless rotation by cerebral fingers of a noological snow globe. The tawdry thought itself offers little peace-of-mind, but like the globe, it is valued for its kitsch alone: He is by himself in the garage, like usual, working in the stifling space beneath a car, when the hydraulic jack slips. The old man is pinned and can’t breathe. He is crushed, but alive. Hours tick by and still, no one finds him there, helpless.

This paranoid fantasy lingers until the old man sells his garage and buys himself into the lean storyline of Philip K. Dick’s 1960 novel, Humpty Dumpty in Oakland. A special book for Dick fans, it is only just being published in the United States, more than 50 years after the author first penned it, and more than 20 years since it was released in the United Kingdom.

There are only very dim shades of the manic handbags full of dementia praecox found in Dick’s later works—and only if the reader arrives with the intention of seeking them out.

The doctor delivered to Fergessen the hard fact that he should halt the mental stress and heavy lifting involved with his trade, on account of high blood pressure and risk of imminent heart attack. When Fergessen gets his asking price for the auto garage, he pulls the rug out from under Al Miller, the young, unintentionally indolent nobody who sells used cars on Fergessen’s lot.

The rift that ensues draws a firm tension knot around both men’s throats. Neither man relents—one because he is just too damn old to do so, and the other because he hasn’t got a hope in the world apart from slinging dead cars and scheming for hair-brained alternatives.

It is that scheming that leads to the major problem in the narrative. Miller can’t decide whether he should help his estranged friend, Fergessen, extricate himself from a shady business deal poised to drain every cent of his retirement money, or take part in the deal and wreck Fergessen himself and thus secure his own quasi-security by dubious means.

Before his death in 1982, Dick was a sufferer of twin losses, victim of chronic nervous breakdowns and arbiter of complex realities on the page. His biographical notes are perpetually interesting. More important, though, is that the man occupies a distinct place in modern genre fiction (mostly science fiction). As a nascent writer, Dick produced his fair share of pulp, publishing 16 novels between 1959 and 1964.

The style in which this novel was written belies the writer that would later come to full fruition as master of the frenetic and kingpin of meticulously researched prose stuffed with neurotic dialogue. Humpty Dumpty in Oakland sounds like what it is, a circa 1950s pulp novel, infused with occasionally romantic visions of the sad casbahs left behind after the tearing down and rebuilding of the East Bay.

On the whole, the book is a surprisingly pedestrian tale about two men railing against their respective statuses as nobodies. The subterranean fear inherent in the story doesn’t often erupt into screams, but sits by, passively and destructively, while the characters orchestrate their own depressing finales.