I am a fan of Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novels, as anyone who’s read my reviews of Voices From The Street and the Library of America’s two collections of his novels, Philip K. Dick: Four Novels of the 1960s and Philip K. Dick: Five Novels of the 1960s and 70s, can attest to. A similarity between Voices From The Street and Humpty Dumpty in Oakland is that neither one is science fiction - they are more like sociological and psychological character studies. They also both depict the racism prevalent in America during the mid to late 1950s. My belief from reading Dick’s novels is that he, himself, was far from being a racist, as some characters in the novels don’t condone the prejudiced viewpoints of others. Far from it - some white characters seem to have respect for the black characters, even a sense of esteem and a wish to be more like them. This is not to say that race relations is the only theme explored in these two books, but it is one which pervades much of Dick’s writing, including The Man in the High Castle in the first collection I reviewed, and Dr. Bloodmoney in the second.
Humpty Dumpty in Oakland is told primarily from two different points of view, one being that of Jim Fergesson, the owner of his own auto repair business. He is likable to an extent, but he looks down on black people and on the man who leases some of his land, Al Miller, who provides the second point of view. Though the two men get along on some levels, occasionally joking with each other and drinking together at a local bar, Fergesson thinks Miller is beneath him and disrespects him. This is because Miller sells a lot of his cars to Oakland’s black citizens and because Fergesson thinks of Miller as lacking drive and motivation to get ahead in life. He is not alone in thinking this - Al’s wife, Lydia, also does, as well as two of the main black characters in the novel, Al’s friend Tootie Dolittle and Tootie’s wife, Mary Ellen.
The novel follows the twin plot lines of Jim Fergesson’s decision to first retire and sell his auto garage and then, later, to start his business over again in a different location where he feels he’ll have great success; and Al Miller’s attempts to fight against fate and his own lack of inner drive to make a success out of his life. Though we, as the readers, feel sympathy toward both of these characters -for Jim because he’s worked hard all of his life and has health problems, and for Al because he strives against an inexorable predestined role for his life and career - it is difficult to truly like either one of them.
Jim is often gruff and abusive, acting offended at Al’s expressions of concern about Jim’s health, and Al’s natural worries about where he’ll relocate his used car lot when his lease expires and the auto repair business sale becomes final. This does nothing to endear Jim to the reader. Al conceives of a scheme to get rich by shady means: blackmailing record company owner Chris Harman for his involvement in producing records with pornographic jokes on them and for pirating material previously recorded by other companies without their permission. Nothing Al does, though, works as he plans, which prompts criticism from even his friend, Tootie:
“You just a humpty dumpty,” Tootie said. “You just stand there, stand around,
while it all happens to you. You just perch and watch.”
Philip K. Dick was a major science fiction writer, the author of books and stories that have been made into movies - Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (made into Bladerunner starring Harrison Ford), Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly. Though Humpty Dumpty in Oakland is not science fiction, it is a fascinating character study of Jim Fergesson and Al Miller, and a revealing look at American society and race relations in the 1950s. I prefer Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novels, because that is my favorite genre to read (followed closely by mysteries), but this is a novel well worth reading and adding to your bookshelves.