PKD flashback: ‘In Milton Lumky Territory’ (1985) (Book review)

I

n Milton Lumky Territory” (written in 1958, published in 1985) is at first glance one of Philip K. Dick’s lesser novels. It’s among his rare non-science fiction works, but it’s mundane even by that standard, lacking exceedingly weird people and crazy schemes. (A wholesale typewriter quest is a rare topic, but not a crazy one.) Yet it’s one of his most thorough and thoughtful portrayals of a marriage, and ultimately its workaday nature is more of a feature than a bug, resulting in pleasant, non-stressful reading.

In most PKD novels, we meet the protagonist in the midst of a crumbling marriage. Often he will matter-of-factly decide to get a divorce. Indeed, “Lumky’s” Bruce Stevens at one point muses that divorce is no big deal, and he’ll get one if he has to. But this chronicle of Bruce’s marriage to Susan Faine includes several disagreements that the couple irons out. Blending marriage with Susan’s typewriter-selling company — where Bruce is the manager — is obviously problematic, but “Lumky” is about working through problems more so than despairing.

PKD insists in a brief foreword that this is a happy novel, and I suppose it is, relative to his overall catalog. But Bruce and Susan don’t easily find happiness.

PKD insists in a brief foreword that this is a happy novel, and I suppose it is, relative to his overall catalog. But Bruce and Susan don’t easily find happiness. Susan makes quick changes of her mind – as Bruce discovers to his horror early in the marriage. It’s the first of many times when he assumes he’s doomed to be miserable — only to get up the next day and keep trying.

Bruce is a bland guy by his own admission, and certainly a tough hero to sell in a cover blurb (which might be why “Lumky” was initially rejected by publishers, along with his eight other non-SF novels). Bruce also can be an immoral person, as we find in a climactic situation where he attempts to make an unscrupulous sale. But he does keep trying, and there’s something to be said for that.

Bruce has his pessimistic side; he’s still a PKD protagonist, after all. He looks down on his home state of Idaho in a funny internal rant that made me picture the oddballs from “Napoleon Dynamite.” Plus, he resents the fact that Idaho is in “Milton Lumky territory,” meaning the typewriter buying-and-selling is controlled by his (mostly friendly) rival Milt.

Lumky – who likewise finds Idaho “miserable” even though he lives there — enters the picture as a capital-C character, wisecracking as he stops by Susan and Bruce’s store in Boise on his rounds. The older Lumky is kind of a friend to Bruce (he gives him a $500 wedding present) and kind of an untrustworthy guy (he later asks for the money back, claiming it was a loan). He’s kind of a mentor, kind of a cautionary tale.

I think there’s a second meaning to the title that goes beyond geography: Bruce is in danger of finding himself in Milton Lumky territory in the sense of having Lumky’s life — driving around the vast reaches of the Western states rather than settling down. Lumky has a live-in girlfriend in Pocatello, but he feels like he missed his chance with Susan. (He probably shouldn’t be so hard on himself; it’s unlikely that Susan sees him as more than a quirky friend.) In fact, Lumky at one point suggests that Bruce should find religion, as Milt himself has; he feels it gives him something meaningful in a life he otherwise isn’t proud of.

PKD’s other big attempt at spicing up “Lumky” is the fact that Susan and Bruce first met when she was his fifth-grade teacher; she was 21 and he was 11. It’s not all that risqué: Their attraction doesn’t happen until he is 24 and she is 34. But still, the author reminds us of the oddity of their age gap.

As we learn at the end, Bruce retains childhood memories of being frightened by his new, stern teacher. Even though she’s his wife, Susan remains an enigma to Bruce; this could be the case even if they were the same age. But something of that canyon-sized gap in worldview between age 11 and 21 remains, even though the adult versions of these people aren’t all that different. They both make impulsive decisions, for instance.

Throughout “Lumky,” I learned a lot about the details of running a business, particularly in the 1950s in the Pacific Northwest and mountain states, but a lot of it is timeless. PKD turns the idea of “getting something to sell” into an almost nightmare scenario, where one bad thing after another happens to Bruce as he tries to acquire typewriters.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the descriptions of Bruce driving around looking for warehouses of typewriters. The strength of “Lumky” is in the details, many of them downbeat but also life-affirming in their realness. For example, Bruce despairs about the incredible amount of animals he and other motorists drive over on these Western highways.

PKD tries out an interesting trick in the closing chapters. Bruce decides to leave Susan, who has fired him as an employee (though not as a husband). He rents a room and feels good about leaving her and starting over. Then he starts thinking about what could have been, and the final pages find things working out in both business and marriage. The author doesn’t make it explicitly clear if this is reality or Bruce’s daydream – although I lean toward the former given PKD’s foreword about this being a happy book.

There’s little doubt that PKD intends “Lumky” to be the story of a marriage working out. But despite the author’s knack for expertly writing about things he didn’t experience first-hand (for example, describing a typewriter-sales gig so well despite not working in the field), he flails at nailing down why the Bruce-Susan union works out (whereas PKD’s marriages tended to end in divorce).

Strictly speaking, the answer is luck — and Bruce is certainly due some luck. He does plenty of due diligence before buying 60 typewriters in Seattle, yet still gets swindled. But then he happens upon a store for sale at a good price, complete with franchise agreements, in Denver.

Another theory for why the marriage succeeds is that Bruce doesn’t abandon it, even when Susan does something that makes him want to leave. It’s strange, then, that PKD skips over the transition between Bruce renting the single room and going back to Susan. It should be the most important part of the story. This might be a case where PKD valued the aforementioned literary trick more than a crisp explanation of Bruce’s decision and action.

Still, while not everything about “In Milton Lumky Territory” clicks, you’re unlikely to find a better book about driving around the West in the 1950s looking for a good buy on typewriters.

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