Well, it certainly sounds like a science fiction title, but this is not a science fiction novel. Philip K. Dick fans know that the man's dearest professional ambition was to establish a dual career, as a writer of both science fiction and mainstream novels, but that he never quite made it; mainstream titles account for only two of the more than thirty published during his lifetime. The rest of his mainstream work began coming out shortly after his death in 1982, when the success of the movie "Blade Runner" attracted commercial publishers, and this book was published the following year.
So you read PKD's non-sf work and you have to ask yourself the question; If he could not find a place for himself in the mainstream market, was that the market's fault or his? That is, was his mainstream work any good? Based on this novel, the answer is an unqualified Yes.
It concerns the conflicts and struggles of the people of Carquinez, California, a real place north of San Francisco not far from the Pacific coast. And what are they struggling about? Well, pretty much everything, it seems. None of them seem to like each other very much, and that includes the individual members of the two married couples. It's one of PKD's best tricks to make you care about them anyway.
Another of his best tricks is borrowing current events for the issues dividing the people of Carquinez. Unlike some other novels, this one manages to comment on historical movements like civil rights by dealing solely with the lives of its characters. So Leo Runcible, a local real estate broker, runs afoul of Walt Dombrosio, a commercial designer, because Walt invites a black man to dinner and Leo is afraid that people will see and refuse to buy homes in the neighborhood. Not that he's a racist - he's actually a Jew, proud of his World War II service and quite prepared to throw an old and valued friend out of his house when that friend reacts badly to the presence of a black man next door. He's still upset, though, and in retaliation calls the police when Walt drunkenly puts his car in a ditch one night. Things escalate from there until the novel concludes the following Christmas.
When you add in the fact that Leo's wife is an alcoholic and Walt's wife is a harpy, you can see why no one seems happy. Leo also has to deal with some casual antisemitism and Walt has to deal with the first rumblings of feminism in his own marriage, which he doesn't like at all. The man whose teeth are all exactly alike arrives about halfway through the story - he's a fossilized skull that Leo finds on his property, and all of his teeth really are exactly alike. They all look like molars, no incisors or canines. It may even be a Neanderthal skull. Whatever it is, though, it ramps up the heat between Leo and Walt something fierce.
In short, Philip K. Dick the mainstream novelist dealt with the attempts of the suburban postwar middle class to "make it", thus falling somewhere between John Cheever and Philip Roth, only on the other coast and with a lot less money. What sets PKD's work apart is his characters and their motivations, or rather their confusion - Leo, Walt, their wives and the other citizens of Carquinez do things without quite knowing why, whether those actions are useful or destructive. Why on Earth, for instance, would a man throw a chair at his pregnant wife and then tell her he loves her? Unforgivable, to be sure, but also more than enough to keep a reader interested. Fascinated, even. You have to give the author credit for courage, at least; there's no point in being a writer if you're going to flinch from life's ugly realities.
Barry Malzberg once said that PKD's failure to publish most of his mainstream material may have done his science fiction a world of good, since it forced him to deal with his mainstream concerns in his science fiction work and thus produce a brand new style of sf. Maybe so, but on the evidence of TMWTWAEA, that pressure worked both ways. His success as a writer of science fiction gave him the tools necessary to include the unexpected in his mainstream work. I can't think of another author who would have even thought to make an important plot point out of fossils.
That cross-pollination between the author's sf imagination and his mainstream observations shows up especially well when it comes to plotting. I've complained in the past that a lot of PKD's sf novels bounce from event to event with next to no connective tissue and mess up a lot of good ideas that way. Well, real life is often like that, and a similar kind of veering around works pretty well in this novel. And why not? In a mainstream setting, all that confusion is just a day in the life of Leo Runcible - part hustler, part public benefactor. No surprise, really. PKD always wanted his readers to feel empathy for his characters, even the jerks.
When I set myself the project of reviewing all of Philip K. Dick's novels, I considered restricting myself to the work published during his lifetime. Having read "The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike," I think I've changed my mind. Stay tuned for "Humpty Dumpty in Oakland" and the rest.
Benshlomo says, Sometimes you just have to dig for the gold.