Puttering about in a Small Land is another one of Philip K. Dick’s non-genre posthumously published books; written in the mid-50s and originally released in the mid-80s. It focuses very tightly on the lives of two main characters and very few peripheral characters. The small land in the title is the TV and radio sales and repair shop that Roger Lindahl runs and perhaps also describes the inside of his head. Roger is not a particularly likeable character he is moody and immature, and has a dysfunctional relationship with both his son Gregg and his second wife Virginia. He is also prone to seamless flashbacks to his childhood and first marriage which sometimes makes for an odd reading experience.
Virginia thinks that Roger should be more ambitious rather than being satisfied with puttering about in his retail domain. Roger on the other hand is happiest when he is out of the house and tinkering on the workbench in the back room of the shop. A lot of time in this essentially very simple story about adultery in post-war suburban Los Angeles is based around this small shop in which Roger is living his version of the American Dream. In this respect it is somewhat similar to In Milton Lumky Territory.
It is only when he bumps into Liz Bonner a seemingly scatter-brained but desirable mother while taking his son to a new boarding school that Roger seems to lift his head and aspire to a different life than the one he has carved out. An illicit romance soon blossoms between the two but Liz and Roger are so inept at hiding what is going on from his wife that they are soon discovered.
Liz Bonner is one of the most complex female characters I think Dick has created and he does a fine job. It is this development of Liz and Roger’s characters and the insights into their peculiar thought patterns and world views that are the most entertaining facets of this book.
Roger at times appears to be having a psychotic break while Liz is just batshit crazy for most of the book. Virginia and Liz’s husband Chic Bonner seem quite normal in comparison. The description of and conversations the two main characters have about sex are also quite eyebrow-raising for a Philip K Dick fan. I can’t recall anything else he has written that deals with that particular subject in such an unabashed fashion.
As a by-product of this under the microscope analysis of two strange unsatisfied parents Dick also provides an interesting snapshot of American life in the early 1950s. There is a palpable feeling of a changing culture where Blacks and women are becoming increasingly assertive in society. As usual with Dick’s non sci-fi writing I am left wondering how much of what he wrote about in this novel was drawn from first-hand experience. There is a notable absence of paranoia and distrust of the police in this book and apart from a breathtakingly remarkable Travis Bickle-esque description of the horrors of ‘modern life’ very little surrealism.
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