Puttering about in a Small Land (Philip K. Dick book review)

Ojai through the eyes of a great American writer

Philip K. Dick, now widely considered the most brilliant of all science fiction writers, wrote hundreds of extraordinarily imaginative stories and forty-four novels, and — like an innovative artist who only becomes famous after his death — in recent years has had his work splashed across all sorts of screens, including two current television series (“The Man in the High Castle,” and “Electric Dreams”) and numerous movies, including “Minority Report” and “Blade Runner.”

But before becoming known in science fiction in the 1960’s, the relentlessly hard-working, fast-typing Dick wrote a half-dozen traditional novels. The best of these, most critics agree, is “Puttering About in a Small Land.” Although not published until shortly after Dick’s death in l985, it’s still in print, and though conventional in form, a little shocking in content: half suburban angst, half film noir. To read this book is to see a literary x-ray of Ojai, beautiful but stark, a place physically and psychically removed from the rest of Southern California.

Ojai in the novel has an almost frightening beauty. Dick focuses on the wealth and privilege of white people in Ojai as well as the allure of the land, including barren, fire-scarred hills, prowling hunters with guns, and Mexican workers who know the land better than the white residents. The dominant character in Ojai in the novel is the head of a private school, the imperious Mrs. Alt, who embodies the power and wealth of the school, but seems to care not at all for traditional middle-class values like fidelity in marriage.

As Ojai contrasts with Los Angeles, Alt stands apart from the other characters in this post-war story. She runs the Los Padres Valley School, as it is known in the novel, and from her aerie in the hills looks down on the town, much as she seems to look down on the young couples in this novel.

In real life, Dick — the only child of unhappily married parents who divorced when he was five — attended such a school. His father abandoned the family, as the father in this book abandons his son, and as a teenager Dick himself attended a boarding school in Ojai, the long-gone California Preparatory School. At that time the school was housed in what once was the grand Foothills Hotel.

His counterpart in the novel, a boy named Gregg, is put in the school by his ambitious mother, Virginia, against the wishes of the father Roger Lindahl, a small-minded man who owns an electronics shop in Los Angeles. Mrs. Alt observes the conflict between the parents with cool dispassion. When Roger drives up to Ojai to pull Gregg out of school, the day after his wife enrolled the boy against his father’s wishes — because of the cost — Alt does not object. She returns the check, but observes sharply that the strong-willed Virginia was in “a state of great tension” when she dropped off Gregg the day before. To an admiring Roger, Mrs. Alt “was an “I-take-no-shit-from-anyone woman.” Roger changes his mind and lets Gregg stay.

Dick’s biographer suggests that his time at boarding school was a refuge from an unhappy family home for Dick. Ojai appears to have awed him, and he returned to visit later in life. In “Puttering about in a Small Land,” the long drive from Los Angeles through the wild hills alarms the mother Virginia. Dick describes what is now the well-marked Highway 150 from Santa Paula to Ojai with a touch of the menace for which his imagination later became known

          Their road…took them through a dense pack of trees, up a rise away from the farm country and orchards and fields. Tangled growth appeared; they entered an abandoned area that gave her the shivers. The road became narrow and tortuous and again she was aware of the desolation, the between-towns emptiness. Once, she and Gregg saw a hunter with a gun. Signs everywhere warned: NO TRESPASSING. PRIVATE PROPERTY. NO HUNTING OR FISHING. The hills had a hard, primitive vindictiveness, she thought. She noticed rusty barbed wire hanging from trees; it had been strung here and there and then — she supposed — cut away to make passage for some hunter.

Because the drive is hard on Virginia, at Mrs. Alt’s suggestion she and Roger carpool with another couple with boys at the school, the businessman Chic Bonner and his wife Liz. Roger ends up driving to and from the school with the attractive if restless Liz. She can tell he’s attracted to her, but scoffs out loud at the idea of a fling — and then impulsively changes her mind, weary of her overweight husband and his unsatisfying sexuality.

This “other woman” in real life, according to biographer Lawrence Sutin, was based on a dark-haired woman with whom young Dick had an affair after seven years of marriage to his first wife. When Dick’s wife Kleo found out about the affair she went away for a time to let Dick think it over, and the affair cooled. Kleo let it pass, and in fact had the dark-haired woman (who has not been named by biographers) over for dinner with her. The dark-haired woman confessed to Kleo, “I never feel like I know a man unless I go to bed with him.”

In the novel, Roger’s Virginia discovers the affair, and confronts Liz. Liz wants to marry Roger, or even continue the affair. Mrs. Alt at the school encourages Roger to marry Liz; she likes them both, and even set aside a room at the school for their assignations. With a school group of kids and Mrs. Alt, Liz and Roger go on one last camping trip into the hills above the school. They camp by a fire under the stars and Roger once again kisses Liz.

But in the morning, unable to face her or his wife, he loads his cars with televisions and leaves for Chicago, abandoning his life out West. Liz takes her two boys and leaves Chic, never speaking of her fling, so as not to lose custody. Chic goes into business at the electronics store with Virginia, who also never reveals the affair to Chic. Their business succeeds, and Roger is not missed, and all seems placid — on the surface.

Dick — who married five times in his fifty-three years — loved many women but could not make a marriage last. With a spectacular imagination, he dramatized his existential doubts about the trustworthiness of reality itself in his science fiction, but in “Puttering About in a Small Land” he brought forward smaller but similarly corrosive doubts about the American dream.

For him, far-off Ojai was a sort of temporary respite from the dreary suburban life of an everyman: beautiful but harsh, and — despite its romance — ultimately unsustainable for most people. In an introduction to a collection of his short stories issued many years later, Dick wrote:

          I became educated to the fact that the greatest pain does not coming zooming down from a distant planet, but up from the depths of the heart. Of course, both could happen; your wife and child could leave you, and you could be sitting alone in your empty house with nothing to live for, and in addition the Martians could bore through the roof and get you.

 

 

 

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