Street: Wise

We're on the verge of the final canonization of Philip K. Dick, the visionary novelist whose fame during his lifetime was limited to the sci-fi audience, but whose stock in literary circles has been rising exponentially since Blade Runner (based on his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) became the new benchmark in futuristic film in 1982. In one of those twisted ironies his fans have come to call "phildickian," he died just months before Blade Runner came out, so he didn't get to enjoy the notoriety and riches that followed, though his estate certainly has. In the last two decades, eight more of his works have been made into movies (among them, Total Recall,Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly)—he's pretty much money in Hollywood—while the Academy, which has finally come around to recognizing the worth of marginalized genres like sci-fi, is starting to spread the good word about Dick's work to undergraduates throughout the land.

He may not be operating on our time-space continuum anymore, but the next few months look to be the brightest yet for a writer who, during his most trying times, had to publish (an unheard of) 30 short stories in a single year in low-rent pulp mags just to keep food on the table. (His trying times were many: he was married five times, addicted to drugs for several years, infamously paranoid, and for the last eight years of his life—lived out in the haze and smog of Fullerton and Santa Ana in the '70s and early '80s—heard voices he believed were either messages from distant stars or evidence of schizophrenia.) Hollywood continues its love affair with all things Dickian: a biopic of Dick—with Sideways star Paul Giamatti set to play the author—is in development; a new film, Next, based on another short story, is coming out in April; and the 25th anniversary of Blade Runner's initial theatrical run is being celebrated with Ridley Scott's "final cut" version of the film soon to be released on DVD.

More surprising, though, may be the Library of America's decision to publish, in May, four of Dick's novels from the 1960s (including Do Androids) in a single volume. The whole point of the Library of America is permanency: thanks to massive philanthropic patronage, they promise that their books will never go out of print, and LoA volumes are so well-made that they'll sit on your library shelf for centuries without suffering damage. Dick is now in: in like his sci-fi rivals Robert Heinlein or Frank Herbert are never going to be in; and in, say, before Kurt Vonnegut—a writer whose work prominently features or borrows from science fiction—is going to be in. And critics are jacking up the stakes, going profligate with praise, putting Dick up there with masters like Borges, Stanislaw Lem and Kafka.

What may be most surprising of all, however, is that Philip K. Dick has turned out to be much more than a bleak metaphysician in the dark who happened to use the clunky conventions of science fiction to explore, in elegant and sometimes sublime ways, questions like "What is the nature of the real?" and "What is the nature of the human?" (though that would seem to be enough). The guy could also write realistic fiction about suburban American life, the kind practiced by John Cheever, Richard Yates or Richard Ford. In fact, that's how I first discovered him, in a Fullerton used bookstore on Harbor Blvd in 1978, back when I was baby book critic. I had pulled off the shelves a copy of Confessions of a Crap Artist, one of the few works of realism Dick published in his lifetime, and the clerk told me I ought to get it: "He'd like that," the clerk said, "he comes in here once in a while." Knowing nothing about Dick, but feeling that second-order brush with "a real writer," I paid my buck seventy-five, read it, and was wowed by Dick's ability, in that book, to convey the anxiety of male-female intimacy, the fear and nerves that some men and some women feel, all the time, just being in the same room together. I looked for more of his work, but the rest, I discovered, was all sci-fi, and being way genre-snobby at the time, I gave up on him.

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It's been almost 30 years, but I finally get a new dose of Dick's conventional fiction, in the form of Voices from the Street, a novel that Dick wrote in 1952-3, and which is only being published now. Dick was pumping out those pulp magazine stories at the time, and it must've broken his heart that Voices from the Street couldn't find a publisher. He was only 24 or 25 when he wrote it, but it's a pretty remarkable performance: despite some problems that a good editor would have gotten him to fix, Voices from the Street is as evocative of the cultural milieu of California's Bay Area in the early 1950s as Yates' Revolutionary Road is of the northeast in the late 1950s. It's also as passionate a cri de couer against the humiliations and emasculations of suburban repression as any I've read.

The novel's about one Stuart Hadley, a salesman at Modern TV Sales and Service, a little shop on the main street of Cedar Groves, a small town in Marin County that Dick nails with almost uncanny specificity. Imaginative and intellectually restless, and in despair that, married and about to have a child, he's tied down to a horizon-less life and a challenge-less job, Hadley finds himself drawn to a charismatic black preacher named Theodore Beckheim who spins apocalyptic scenarios about the end of the world. (We might forgive Hadley his gullibility: in 1952, Hiroshima was only seven years in memory, the Soviet Union had only two years before exploded its first hydrogen bomb, and the U.S. was chin-deep in the Korean War.) His obsession with Beckheim leads him to a disastrous relationship with one of Beckheim's female followers, which in turn leads to a full-on mental breakdown, complete with one of the most extended descriptions of a drunken bender anyone had written till then, and an episode of a descent into madness that only someone writing from the inside, as it were, could have written.

Again, the novel is flawed—by shaky characterization (especially of women), an embarrassing plot error (a major character is supposed to be picked up at the airport one night, but the novel forgets to do so until two months later), a crippling reliance on modifiers (I counted 23 adjectives and adverbs in one short paragraph), and a long episode that suggests incestuous feelings between Stuart and his sister—which is dropped and never brought up again. Still, Voices from the Street is so spot-on about so much of '50s Northern California—the emerging San Francisco beats, the Marin county health food culture, the small town babbitry, the postwar existential gloom of the young, the nuclear despair that tipped so many sensitive people into madness—that the novel feels like an essential time capsule, and a very bright feather in the cap of Dick's burgeoning legacy.


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