The jacket copy for In Milton Lumky Territory stresses that this is not a work of science fiction from Philip K Dick but rather a realist novel with a then-contemporary setting. I didn’t see what the difference was, to tell the truth. Certainly, this feels like a PKD novel in all the right ways: it is written with a deadpan clarity tinged with a sly ironic wink, has a sharp eye for mundane details that makes the world feel both strange and lived-in, and – most importantly – plunges characters and readers into an absurd set of situations that function within its own impeccable inner logic.
In the spirit of good science fiction, there is even arcana involving technology and cultural resonances, though in this case it’s historical and not speculative in nature. A great deal of attention is paid to typewriters and the maintenance thereof; there is talk about how to refashion keyboards that illustrates the complexity of these machines and the specific needs its users seek. There is also a good deal about the finer points of the retail business, which is only a little quaint in this age of Wal-Mart and eBay, as well as the vagaries of traveling the state highways west of the Rockies, which several characters do throughout the course of the book.
As for the plot: at a former girlfriend’s house, Bruce “Skip” Stevens encounters a woman he once knew, Susan Fain, and is inexorably drafted into saving her mimeography business by turning it into a typewriter retail shop. How he once knew Susan, the arc of their relationship from earlier days to the present, and what he does to save Susan’s business are the meat and sinew of the book. The pulsing heart, though, is the desire to fulfill the American Dream as it was known in the 1950s: bootstrap capitalism and the will of the rugged individual to pursue his own happiness.
And how does the title character fit into this? Milton Lumky is a traveling paper salesman with a rather wide geographic purview (hence the title) who has known Susan for a while and quickly befriends Bruce. Milt unwittingly plants the seeds for a far-fetched scheme in Bruce’s head, and Bruce seeks him out to make sure the plan comes to fruition. Milt wants to help but his chosen lifestyle has taken its toll, not just physically but also in questioning the wisdom of Bruce’s plan and what it says about Bruce.
I found myself gripped by this book, eager to find out what happens next and fearing possible consequences along the way. There is a masterful sequence in a hotel room where two characters face off in what looks to be a difference of opinions but which quickly assumes greater meaning and absurdity. I would call it a bravura performance by Dick, but it is so low-key and off-the-cuff that I hesitate for fear of turning a molehill into a mountain. As expansive as the setting is, wandering from state to state and town to town, it is still about lives writ small, about everyday people doing everyday things and the palpable angst that accompanies life-changing decisions. I don’t want to call it social realism or kitchen sink drama because nothing feels quite that dour, Dick manages to keep things light and jaunty throughout without forfeiting the intensely personal stakes involved.
That said, the book actually starts with this assuring foreword from Dick:
This is actually a very funny book, and a good one, too, in that the funny things that happen happen to real people who come alive. The ending is a happy one. What more can an author say? What more can he give?
How tongue-in-cheek is he in this statement? Is he trying to parody the notion of “giving the people what they want” – a tenet of capitalism that’s right up there with “caveat emptor”? Or is he genuinely humblebragging about a nifty little novel that does indeed deliver on all counts, yet somehow does so while maintaining a certain level of intrigue and suspense?
Given that this is PKD, the promise of a happy ending was actually what vexed me most as I read further, thinking Bruce was going to metaphorically crash-and-burn at any moment, either financially or romantically. After all, what exactly is meant by a happy ending? As Bruce makes sense of the shifting circumstances of his life, the answer does not seem as clear. And while the ending we get may be as conventionally bourgeois as we would expect from those times, I must admit to a slight sense of unease at how quickly it fell into place for Bruce and how readily he accepts it.
This is not because the reward feels unearned or that it is indeed such a conventional ending from a writer known for being radically unconventional. Rather, there is a major betrayal – two, really – which are never fully addressed and which are simply paved over by the ongoing tumult of everyday life. Which is admittedly quite realistic, perhaps painfully so. That is probably the point Dick wishes to make here about the American Dream – that sometimes you must betray someone and sometimes you will be betrayed but still the dream persists. If so, bravo again for not overstating the point and simply leaving the reader with a low-lying sense of dread. Welcome to late market capitalism; pull up a chair and settle in, this is as good as it gets.
I’m a little shocked to admit this, given how slight the novel feels and how much PKD’s reputation lies elsewhere, but I can see myself revisiting this novel in the near future. It is a satisfyingly deceptive work: there is a gentle and assuring sensibility throughout In Milton Lumky Territory that hides surprising existential depths. Now that I think about it, it may pay to re-read the novel with the notion of Bruce Stevens not as a would-be mover and shaker, but rather a Candide-like innocent whose imperturbability hides something quite monstrous (and achingly common) about the human spirit in a capitalist system. I could be wrong, I hope I’m not. One thing’s for sure, though: this book will stick with me for a long time to come.
And I’ll probably never look at a typewriter the same way again.