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‘They Prey on Us’
Humpty Dumpty in Oakland by Phillip K. Dick, 1986, Tor, NY, 252 pages


I suspect this novel was written around 1960, but the original copyright date is not to be found in this Tor edition.

As with his other novels and stories, Phillip K. Dick brings us within his characters through a perspective grounded in their internal plight. The world is seen, clearly, menacingly for what it is, an evolved society dedicated to extinguishing the human soul. As mean, petty, scheming and weak as many of his protagonists are, they are yet rendered human through their interaction with the invalidating personalities which circumscribe their pathetic lives.

Jim owns a garage and is getting old, his failing heart pushing him to sell his property, which will put his almost business partner, Al, with his handful of used cars, out of business. Jim and Al both fail utterly to connect with their wives, who are both invalidating, emasculating and manipulative personalities, very believably wrought.

Dick’s Oakland is very much like Hunter Thompson’s Oakland, though written from a non-projecting, but internalizing vantage. There is perhaps, the most realistic treatment of the “magic Negro” I have read in fiction, and did not expect to find it in a nihilistic novel by the dream-boy of science-fiction writers.

The pitfall of Dick’s style is its anti-heroism and the fact that, if the reader met these characters in real life, they would be of no interest to us at all and we’d go about our day. I got to the point, about 90 pages in, where I did not care if Jim died, Al got away from his wife or what the fate of the garage would be. I willed myself to blow an afternoon trudging through this litany of the petty acts of pathetic people… and finally finished the damned thing and set it aside.

…But this morning, the book beckons, the story nags at me, and I realize, that Dick is a master of illuminating the insides of a meat grinder from the perspective of the flesh being fed into it, as opposed to the manner in which most of modern thought is conducted in letters, from the vantage of the sausage maker.

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Add Comment
c7August 10, 2018 8:44 AM UTC

Great writing, James. PKD had understood the modern dilemma: in an age that demands heroic opposition, the heroes are at the grocery store buying corn flakes and pepsi.

That may be changing, and for the first time since RR got his warning shot there are glimmers of hope.