Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Book Notes — And All the King's Men

When I was a kid, I started thinking about what life was like for the strangers I’d see. I’d notice the guy in the tie and short-sleeved shirt standing in a used car lot, colorful plastic pennants on a rope snapping in the wind above him. What did this man think about when business was slow? I didn’t know any used car salesmen, but I was vaguely aware that people thought they were untrustworthy. Same for mechanics. They could tell you anything. When my father took his car to a garage for repair a man in grease-stained work pants would talk to him. I remember how not only was there grime under the man’s fingernails, but also in the wrinkles on the his face. Surrounding him was the smell of heat and gasoline and burnt coffee. There was a buzzing, flickering fluorescent light. Somewhere, in all these garages were calendars with happy, half-naked women posing proudly with a wrench or a can of motor oil. What did this guy do when he wasn’t puttering about under an old Pontiac or looking at Miss April? Did he daydream? What did he think about at night before he fell asleep?

I have no idea what thoughts these men had, how fine or noble or petty or mean. But the legendary Philip K. Dick’s posthumously published Humpty Dumpty in Oakland (Tor) addressed those kinds of questions in the author’s own wonderfully strange and quirky way. Al Miller is the used car salesman and Jim Fergessen, the mechanic. They have, by the author’s account, very ordinary existences. One day, a man appears in their lives, stirs something in their beings. They have things to think about — and things to do. They discover they are unsatisfied with who they are and what they have accomplished. They yearn to change their everyday, repetitive, unappreciated lives. They see bigger, more important roles for themselves. And letting their ambition outweigh both their scruples and common sense, they think that they are in some way entitled and that it will be easy.

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