One of the earliest novels and the only one that has never been published until now, Philip K. Dick’s Voices from the Street is a marvelous book that’s sure to please his many fans and earn him many more. Although it is not science fiction, as are Dick’s most popular works such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (aka BladeRunner, made into a movie with the same title); Through A Scanner Darkly (also made into a movie); and Minority Report (ditto) - not to forget two of my other faves, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Ubik - it contains some of the themes that permeate his other novels and is definitely worth reading in its own right.
Voices from the Street is divided into four parts: “Morning,” “Afternoon,” “Evening,” and “Night.” The main character is Stuart Hadley, a radio-electronics salesman in early 1950’s Oakland, California. Though the novel depicts the voices of several characters and presents an intimate look into their minds, the main focus of the book is on Hadley, his seemingly perfect life with a decent job, a pretty wife, and a nice house, and his ultimate descent into depression and madness. It’s a tale of the American dream gone horribly wrong - as, in a way, are all of Dick’s books, though on an interplanetary or interdimensional scale in his others. Hadley knows he’s sick and becoming sicker on some level, but he can’t stop it and even welcomes it:
In his mind were forces that could destroy it; in him was the possibility, the energy
to annihilate himself and his tiny universe. As before; as in all his life. It was not
new; it had always been there. In one moment he could collapse every fragment of
himself. That was the terror; that was what made the universe awful and foreboding.
He has Jewish friends, David and Laura Gold; but, he rejects and despises them, also, thinking them to be troll-like and eternal victims. His racist attitudes extend to black people, called “Negroes,” “colored,” and the six-letter “n” word throughout, yet he seeks salvation through a charismatic Negro preacher, Theodore Beckheim. Beckheim is a Messianic type looming over Stuart’s life, reminding me somewhat of Palmer Eldritch in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. It’s a world-view clouded by prejudice, xenophobia, and hatred - in a way, similar to ours today, in regards to racial profiling, illegal aliens and Arabic-looking people.
Stuart Hadley is torn between his prejudices and the knowledge that prejudices are not right to have. On one level, the Golds are his friends; he knows that “The Golds hadn’t asked for this world anymore than he had. They had been born involuntarily.” But that doesn’t stop him from resenting them and considering their birth to be “part of some occult scheme.” He looks down on Negroes and despises them as well, but he turns to Theodore Beckheim to try to obtain a miracle and salvation. Drunk, being driven home by Marsha Frazier, the white lover of Beckheim and the creator of a journal called the Succubus - which even Hadley recognizes as being “a racist, neofascist tract,” - the very landscape transforms into Beckheim:
Opening his eyes he watched a long, eroded ridge to the right of the highway. The
car was moving toward it. In the corrugations of the hill he imagined Beckheim’s
features: his nose and forehead, his thin lips. A portion of the ridge was Beckheim’s
thick jaw and chin. Beckheim lay all around; it was a pleasant, comforting thought.
Hadley could reach out his hand, through the open window, into the night, to touch
Beckheim. Reach up and touch the dark, horny cheek. Run his fingers over the
knobbly cheekbones, the intense ridges of the old man’s brows.
Voices from the Street portrays 1950’s America at the height of the Korean War. The depictions of small-town life are spot-on. Though it’s a work of fiction and not autobiographical, one can make comparisons between the turmoil that Stuart Hadley undergoes and his striving to rise above the rest of the people of the town he lives in and Philip K. Dick’s life and struggles with bouts of mental illness. Dick was one of the most inventive and interesting writers of the latter part of the twentieth century, and his work continues to be mined by movie studios today. This book is definitely worth checking out for both fans of Dick’s and anyone, in general, who likes to read works of great literature.
Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Douglas R. Cobb, 2007