A review of

Voices from the Street

by Philip K. Dick

Central question: Is it possible to come to grips with the forces that shape our lives without destroying ourselves in the process?
Format: 304 pp., paperback; Size: 6-1/8" x 9"; Price: $24.95; Publisher: Tor; Surprising epigraph from C. Wright Mills that offers key to understanding of characters: “They find it harder to locate their external enemies than to grapple with their internal conditions. Their seemingly impersonal defeat has spun a personally tragic plot and they are betrayed by what is false within them.” Representative sentence: “In the twilight gloom the city might have been some cosmic mining operation, working soundlessly, effortlessly, infinite machinery rising up from the ground, disappearing into the layer of drifting fog that hung over the Bay.”

From the beginning of his thirty-year career, Philip K. Dick (1928–1982), the prolific and wildly imaginative science fiction writer, longed to be recognized for his mainstream literary fiction. Throughout the ’50s, while churning out scores of stories for pulp magazines and writing the first of the sci-fi novels that would eventually bring him fame, PKD also wrote a half dozen or so straight novels of working-class life, but recognition for these eluded him. Most went unpublished during his lifetime and several early manuscripts were lost. His mainstream ambitions finally crumbled in the early ’60s under a steady drizzle of rejection. Of these youthful efforts, only Confessions of a Crap Artist has been widely available. Written in 1959, it wasn’t published until 1975, a dozen years after PKD received the Hugo award for The Man in the High Castle.

Voices from the Street, touted by editor David Hartwell as the earliest extant PKD novel, is being published for the first time by Tor. (Hartwell agrees with PKD biographer Lawrence Sutin that Voices was written in 1952–53, but Sutin thinks another realist fiction, Gather Yourselves Together, was written two or three years before Voices. Gather, published in a small-press edition in 1994, is not in print.) Voices is the work of an apprentice novelist who was already a journeyman short-story writer. Undoubtedly, it has flaws, but readers familiar with PKD will be fascinated to observe the young writer working out—alongside some technical issues—many of the themes he would return to obsessively throughout his extensive oeuvre.

Set in Oakland—here called Cedar Groves—in the summer of 1952, the novel traces a sometimes melodramatic descent into despair and rage. Stuart Hadley is a puerile antihero, a dreamer who hates his life but can’t quite figure out why. Stuck in a dead-end job and a boring marriage, Hadley falls in with an unlikely pair of extremists. The first is Theodore Beckheim, a charismatic black man who preaches a pseudoscientific millenarianism. Fans of PKD’s later paranoid cosmologies will find Beckheim’s long apocalyptic sermon one of the book’s more compelling passages. The other figure is arty, seductive Marsha Frazier, who—rather improbably, it must be said—is both Beckheim’s lover and the editor of Succubus, a rabidly anti-Semitic, cryptofascist literary journal. Hadley ultimately rejects the worldviews they represent, but this only deepens his disillusionment and bitterness. Not to give too much away, let it suffice to say that Hadley really goes off the rails in the book’s penultimate section. Then in a brief and unexpectedly affecting conclusion, the author offers his beleaguered everyman—and the reader—a wan hope of redemption. The narrative drags in places, and there are inconsistencies of characterization and description. But readers will find the themes of personal loss and betrayal, along with the prescient treatment of rising religious and political intolerance, all too relevant today.

Tor plans to publish four more of PKD’s early mainstream novels in the next two years. They may be a far cry from Ubik, Valis, The Divine Invasion, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, but it’s heartening to contemplate the relatively humble beginnings of PKD’s extraordinary body of work. By continually transposing the struggles and obsessions of his own earthly life, his protean imagination birthed countless strange futures and alien worlds.

—James M. Stubenrauch

James M. Stubenrauch lives in Brooklyn and works as an editor at a leading nursing journal.

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