In Milton Lumky Territory is one of Philip K. Dick’s non-science-fiction (i.e. “realist”) novels, that he wrote in the late 1950s, but that wasn’t published until after his death. It’s quite an affecting book, based on that 1950s obsession, the figure of the traveling salesman (cf. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman). It’s set in Idaho — Boise, mainly, though the characters get all over the West when they are on the road — and really concerns the dreams and dead ends of small-town America (as it was already starting to vanish when Dick wrote the novel). What’s peculiar (and compelling) about it is the way it drowns itself in the hopelessly mundane. Most of the novel is about Bruce Stevens’, the main character’s, quest to make a killing by getting a franchise for, and selling, imported Japanese electronic typewriters. He never succeeds, but the way the novel obsessively details his quest, the deals he cuts, the tests he makes, the things he learns about typewriters, and the endless hours he puts in driving from Boise to San Francisco to Pocatello to Seattle to Boise to Reno and back to Boise — all this becomes almost surreal, just because the focus is so narrow, so doggedly persistent, so unrelieved by adventure or difference.
The eponymous Milton Lumky is not the protagonist of the novel, but a subsidiary character, somebody Bruce Stevens meets: a bitter, twisted, cynical and ironic traveling salesman who seems to embody what Bruce might be in danger of turning into, if he weren’t so unimaginative and all-American. But Bruce is incapable of insight; he seems never to have emotionally outgrown his teen years. Besides his fixation on selling typewriters, 24-year-old Bruce meets and marries a woman, Susan, who is ten years his senior, and who in fact had been his fifth-grade teacher. Bruce veers back and forth between submission to, and adolescent rebellion against, this maternal figure. Susan comes off as willful and smothering, but in a way that is sufficiently enigmatic (and sufficiently desirable to Bruce, and perhaps to the author as well) that she never fits into the misogynistic, castrating-bitch type who so often crops up when Dick writes female characters. The relationship is clearly doomed from the beginning, and the interaction between Bruce and Susan veers between self-deception and sheer incompatibility. Except that the novel ends, remarkably, with a regressive fantasy, in which Bruce — after having walked out on Susan for good — first reverts back to the fifth grade, and his fixation on Susan as his teacher, and then flashes forward from that to imagine them together, raising Susan’s daughter and running a small business, in reasonable contentment if not outright bliss. It’s a “happy ending” that the entire rest of the novel belies, and that startles because, as a fantasy, it is so pallid and humdrum — clearly Bruce cannot imagine anything other or better, and if he could, he would only drown in Milton Lumky bitterness — or worse. It’s as if this narrow, constricted universe were the only alternative to, or the only defense against, the schizophrenic horrors of Dick’s later, and greater, fiction. The oppressive ontological solidity of the novel is the flip side of, and just as alienating as, the continually shifting and collapsing realities of Dick’s major SF novels.