In Milton Lumky Territory

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.

3 Responses to “In Milton Lumky Territory”

  1. Gabe Cutrufello says:

    Hi there,

    A friend of mine is a huge fan of your blog and sent this along to me. I just finished my thesis on the early mainstream novels of PKD, and I discussed this book. I think that these early novels can be a rich insight into his later works. I recommend THE MAN WHOSE TEETH WERE ALL EXACTLY ALIKE if you haven’t read it so far.

  2. Josh Lukin says:

    I think, with the exception of Puttering and Crap Artist, most of PKD’s realist books avoid the usual Phildickian misogyny, which really only got scary-bad around Clans of the Alphane Moon (remember Le Guin’s “There used to be real women in his books”?). I’m with Gabe in his regard for The Man Whose Teeth, which puts the end-of-novel fantasy sequence to better use.

    The way you describe the “hopelessly mundane” accounts of Bruce’s job remind me of Jim Thompson’s Now and on Earth. But then, I always thought PKD himself only made sense as a Jim Thompson character.

  3. Lewis Parry says:

    I was asking my son for help in transforming a Spanish PC type face to a UK/USA format when I recalled this quiet novel which I read decades ago.
    Bruce is obviously a character absent from his own life as I’d forgotten him,and Susan,completely.What lingered were the typewriters.Tinkered with until they were adapted to their new role;soon to be completely outmoded by then unimaginable technologies.
    Tools of communication,yes,but for what real purpose?Stealing time from their human guardians,and distancing these characters from the immediacy of the fleeting joys in language and life. When I started teaching the deaf we were told “not to lose the child in the amplification equipment”.But the characters in this book are surely lost in a mausoleum of office things careering to their sell-by date.

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