Would someone please explain to me how Philip K. Dick got so knowledgeable about the life and experiences of traveling salesmen? His biography is very clear; he supported himself (not well, but sufficiently) by his writing for just about his entire adult life and rarely held a day job. Even when he did, it was a stationary employment - he worked for some time as a clerk in a classical-music record store, for example. So where did he pick up the sharp detail of where a traveling salesman might go, who he might see, what he might think about? It's all right there in this novel, and for all I know it might be totally inaccurate, but it sure seems real.
PKD was, of course, a master of the imagination in the science fiction realm, and we can see with "In Milton Lumky Territory" that his imagination was no less powerful in mainstream fiction. Take, for example, the fact that the book's setting restricts itself primarily to small-town Idaho; I have been unable to confirm that PKD ever even visited that area, but it rings true all the way from the weathered porches to the yellow-winged flies. All the more impressive, this, when you consider that almost all of the man's work is set either in California or on some other planet. There are also the thoughts and actions of Bruce Stevens, the novel's hero, as he considers balance sheets, job lots, consignments and franchises, trying to make a go of it as a store owner.
Unlike many of PKD's stories, this one is pretty simple and straightforward, so there's no need to go into a lot of detail. Suffice to say that Bruce, a traveling buyer for a discount warehouse who talks a good postwar American Century line, stumbles into a relationship with Susan, his old fifth-grade teacher of all people. The two of them buy out her partner in a kind of 1958 version of Kinko's (carbon paper rather than copiers), and Bruce starts looking around for something to sell. That's when he meets Milton Lumky.
Milton is a paper salesman who travels all over the Pacific Northwest and as far inland as Boise, which means that Bruce is - you got it - in Milton Lumky territory. No big deal, you might think. Guess again; here's where PKD heads off into one of his patented paranoid flights of fancy. Turns out that life in Milton Lumky territory is a constant struggle with decay, disease, long hours on the road in the days before the Interstate Highway system, and of course the possibility of economic and marital ruin. The most surprising thing is this: When PKD, in his brief introduction, insists that "In Milton Lumky Territory" is a funny and upbeat book, he's quite right. You find yourself liking these people and wishing them well, despite - or maybe because of - their less-than-kindly ways with each other.
Of course, as in any decent novel, there's conflict galore in Bruce's story. He's gearing up to run a small business, after all, and building a new relationship with an older woman at the same time. This would be complicated enough without Milton Lumky, who is old, sick, dissatisfied with his life and profession, jealous of Bruce's relationship with Susan, full of unsolicited business and personal advice, and yet seems genuinely interested in seeing Bruce succeed. As Bruce makes his way from Boise to Reno to Seattle and back on the lonely Pacific Northwest roads, you can see him beginning to turn into a Milton Lumky himself, only perhaps without the older man's more generous impulses. Uh-oh.
So what's so funny and upbeat about this story? That depends on how you look at it. PKD, as always, loves these characters and can smile at their more juvenile tendencies - the way they stumble through their lives, changing their minds about pretty nearly everything, giving each other the silent treatment when they don't get their way, seeking petty revenge for perceived slights, and yet really needing each other, for company if nothing else. In reading "In Milton Lumky Territory," you're watching a group of people trying very hard to grow up. It's not always enlightening, but it can be quite moving at times.
Besides, like many children, they get themselves into such scrapes. Wait until you read about what happens to Bruce at the beginning of the story, when he drops in on an old girlfriend hoping for some action.
And then there's the curious influence of PKD's interest in paranoia on what seems like a perfectly innocent mainstream tale. What, after all, do you do when you have to spend hours on the road just on the off chance of finding something you can make a living at? You start to daydream, of course. If you're not careful, you end up like Bruce; in this novel we can see him beginning to take his darker daydreams seriously, and attributing evil motives to pure coincidence. Then along comes Milton, much more advanced on the same dangerous route, and you see what's so painful about getting too deep into Milton Lumky territory.
Turns out that PKD always knew how thin is the line between imagination and lunacy, not only on Mars, but also in whitebread Middle America. His fans know that in his later years his mental processes got a little dicey. You have to give him credit, though; in his mainstream work and in his sf, he dove into the world of the imagination and came up brilliant. Looks like he was even braver than we thought. For all their complaining and misbehavior, so are these characters.
Benshlomo says, We all want to avoid trouble, but that's where the treasure is.