Philip K. Dick is best known for his bizarre and creative Science Fiction novels but in his long career he had also written a number of “realistic” novels before he found his fame with his best known genre. “Puttering About in a Small Land” is one of these novels. Written in 1957, and never published until a few years after his death, this novel shows another side to the writer, one that was surprising to me. Hardcore fans of his are probably well aware of these novels but for me it was a pleasant surprise to learn that he had written books outside of the Science Fiction genre (as I always am whenever a writer who is well known in a particular genre decides to stretch his legs). However, these books were written long before he was known and none of them were ever published in his lifetime. Each and every one of them were roundly rejected, much to Dick’s dismay since he wanted to be known more as a literary author than a genre author. And it just goes to show you how one can look at your work when you’re an unknown, then suddenly have a “change of heart” once you’ve got a name for yourself.
“Puttering About in a Small Land” is set in the suburbs of Los Angeles in the early 1950s. The story primarily focuses on two couples, Roger and Virginia Lindahl and Chic and Liz Bonner. Roger is a television repair man who opened his own shop in the downtown area in the town in which they lived. It is a typical, post-war suburb: small homes, lawns, mostly middle class veterans recently returning from World War II. Virginia is a slightly uptight, proper housewife and together they decide to send their son, Gregg, to a private school in the mountains of Ojai. They quarrel about it, hinting that their marriage isn’t as stable as they’d like to project to their neighbors. Little by little we are informed of both Roger and Virginia’s past and from the beginning you see that Roger isn’t really the typical suburban father type. He’s restless, stoic, having already abandoned his first wife and son in his native Arkansas. Virginia previously lived with her domineering mother, who meddles once too often into their affairs, intensely angering Roger, who makes it clear that he has no love for his mother in law.
The novel begins with Virginia driving their son to the new school and immediately getting off on the wrong foot with the school’s administrator, Mrs. Alt. You sense that this school is more of a reformatory than a proper private school with it’s strict rules and disciplinary ways. Roger is against the idea and the next day he drives up on his own to take their son home and to retrieve the check that Virginia had written for the school. When he arrives, the farm-like scenery brings back painful memories of his life in Arkansas - and the loss of his older brother - and he just wants to get his son and clear out of there. While there, he meets Chic and Liz Bonner, who also brought their two boys to the school. They strike up a conversation and Roger finds himself attracted to Liz. Eventually he decides to change his mind and allow their son to attend the school after all, working out a plan with the Bonners to alternate when they pick their kids up on the weekend and bring them back when the weekend is over.
Their new friends, Chic and Liz Bonner are a young couple who are also going through marriage troubles. Chic is a business man, who shows an intense interest to buy into Roger’s business and Liz is the complete opposite of Virginia: extroverted, flirtatious, open, sexual and verbal. Roger can’t stop thinking about her and we soon learn that his idea for alternating driving the kids back and forth was merely an excuse to get closer to Liz and what seems like a typical, post-war suburban “paradise” suddenly becomes unhinged when Roger and Liz begin their affair.
The rest of the story revolves around the emotional traumas surrounding both couples falling apart, often wrestling with what was then the more conventional ideas of the time: sexual freedom, birth control, divorce, the falsehood of the ideal “nuclear family”, subjects that today’s reader will merely shrug at but these were bold themes for the time the novel was written. And it’s a very well written novel with a serious point to make and I wonder if it were the subject matter behind this story that caused its rejection rather than the writing itself. The writing isn’t perfect (there is a lot of meandering and excruciating detail at times - and Dick had improved as a writer as the years went on) but it isn’t terrible. As a reader you will become engaged, following these characters as the story is told from three different perspectives. To me, it seems like a very brave statement about the farce of post-war American life, where everything was about appearances, being respectable but underneath bubbled a cauldron of unhappiness, boredom and decay.
I liked this novel a lot and if you are a fan of Philip K Dick and were not aware of this novel you may very well be surprised by it. I recommend it as more for a glimpse into post-war America just at the start of the Eisenhower era and how the war had done more than just change those who fought it. It is a document of the beginning of changing times, when conventional beliefs and mores are suddenly called into question.