In Milton Lumky Territory, a very posthumously published piece of Philip K. Dick's literary fiction, is in many ways the strangest and most uncanny of his works I've ever read. Then again it might not; it's still Philip K. Dick, after all.
What makes it uncanny is the veneer of surreality -- if not unreality -- that the years have lain over its basic story of three characters whose neuroses get in the way of communicating, who are so worried about how they're coming across that they're not coming through. But it's not the characters or their strained, pained interactions (which are as beautifully and compellingly rendered as anything in highbrow White Male Narcissist literature) that make reading this novel so weird.
Its their world. Banal, ordinary, mundane, but also, through the action of time and economic upheaval, harder to believe could have ever been real than any Martian colony or post-apocalyptic California or urban techno-dystopia or tank full of humanoids engineered for another planet that Dick concocted.
In Milton Lumky Territory depicts an insignificant backwater in mid-century America, but its an America with a functioning manufacturing economy, in which it's quite possible for ordinary schmoes like PKD's typical barely competent boob-heroes to make a living, own a house, start or acquire a business, travel great distances by car just on the off-chance of maybe finding a warehouse full of newly-imported, as yet unknown and unmarketed Japanese typewriters* that can be bought cheap and sold in their downtown stores in places like Boise, Idaho not just for a profit but for enough to live on comfortably.
Fascinatingly and probably unintentionally also, In Milton Lumky Territory depicts the seeds of this economy's doom. One of the main characters, Bruce, starts off the novel working as a buyer for one of those newfangled discount houses, the ancestors to today's big box stores, before meeting Susan and letting himself be suckered into her dream of making something of her little two-bit typing and mimeographing business. There's also the aforementioned Japanese import typewriters Bruce is hankering to find and sell, the first wave of globalization and the downfall of an economy in which American businesses build durable and useful goods to be sold, used and repaired and used again in America.
It feels almost like PKD is taunting us, we who live in what can be argued is one version or another of his post-apocalyptic techno-dystopias he later created when he gave up on being a highbrow literary novelist and turned to science fiction and pulp to make his living. If only we'd been satisfied with what we had back then, maybe we wouldn't be in the mess we're in now. We could have lived in this novel, but instead, we had to break things and ruin things, let in globalization and inflation and deregulation and union-busting and general plutocracy.
But all this is just rich modern subtext to the experience of reading In Milton Lumky Territory. There is also the actual story, a soap opera plot in which Bruce and Susan meet (again**) and sort of back into deciding they're in love and should marry their fortunes together and encounter the title character, Milton Lumky, who is a traveling typewriter and typing supplies salesman (that there could be such a profession!), only to alienate him and then belatedly find they need him, for he perhaps holds the secret to finding the golden opportunity of Bruce's theoretical warehouse full of languishing game-changing Japanese machines. The characters' interactions bristle with tension, with misunderstanding, with neuroses, with the drama of miscommunication and buried intentions and revelations that seem more than a little creepy.
Which is to say that so many of the things we read PKD for are here, one does not miss the spaceships or the aliens or the revelation that the president is a robot.
I know this world existed once. My parents have vivid memories of it and I trust their accounts. Its relics can still be found all around us (myself, I have three wonderful old manual typewriters, one from 1926, that all still work beautifully because they've been lovingly cared for and used well and kindly over the years by people who respected them and expected them to last). Those empty storefronts in your city's downtown used to be occupied by businesses like Susan's; those factory buildings weren't always chic yuppie loft condos.
It's a lost world, and it's our own decisions, not a comet from space or a machine uprising or a nuclear misunderstanding that lost it for us. And that makes this the most poignant PKD of all.
*Dude. Typewriter fetishists take note. This story is about people who buy and sell and repair typewriters and paper and ribbons and carbons, and they talk about them a lot. It's pretty much heaven.
**Their original meeting lends all this a soap opera sudsiness that is good for too many guffaws to spoil here.