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Review: Philip K. Dick uses a suburban crystal ball in 1960's 'The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike'

In a year when critics are plotzing over Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road (1960), it's enlightening to discover this nongenre novel by science fiction icon Philip K. Dick, written the same year but only now seeing its first widespread publication. • By the time Yates excavated the dismal life of the suburban "organization man," Sloan Wilson had already been there, and in spades. His title passed into the language: The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a 1955 novel and 1956 movie, had been out for years. • Both Yates and Wilson intercut office politics and infidelity with the complexities of life in gossipy suburban cul de sacs where flirtation is rampant and neighbors need to be impressed. Their heroes' women suffered — mistresses in those inevitable office romances and unhappy wives. The wives started affairs in a stab at rebellion, but their stories unfolded as they affected the men.

Dick, however, was not content with social cliches. The novelist whose imagination spawned movies like Blade Runner (based on Dick's story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and Minority Report had an active social conscience and a strong sense of the absurd.

Perhaps because most of his work is set in possible futures that are frightening, logical extensions of the present, Dick saw farther than his peers. In this novel about the feud between a voracious real estate agent and his neighbor, a hot-tempered designer, Dick takes on everything from racism and sexual politics to the moment in which a man who thinks of himself as a hunter-gatherer discovers that his wife has all the power — and he does all this crisply, with wit and grace.

Unpublished in Dick's lifetime (he died in 1982), The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike opens in a coastal California town where housing developments are just beginning to sprawl on the hills. There are problems with the water supply, problems with roads, competitive neighborhood parties complicated by the characters' ambitions and social anxieties.

In an expansive mood, Walter Dombrosio invites an African-American friend to dinner at his house. "I don't want to lower property values," his friend, Chuck Halpin, says and adds reassuringly, "We won't get there until after dark." Yes, this is almost 50 years ago. This is how it was!

Meanwhile Leo Runcible, a proud Jewish liberal with social pretensions, is trying to sell a house to a business friend. The wife is horrified to see "Negroes" at Dombrosio's front door, ruining Leo's scheme. He flares up at the couple's bigotry, but he can't help blaming Dombrosio for his lost real estate deal.

His huffy prospects walk out on the elaborate dinner cooked by Leo's alcoholic wife, an anxious, self-loathing shrew. "If he made her tense, she would become even more inefficient. She would break things . . . without any warning her nervousness would switch over and become resentment at him." Having quit work to become the perfect housewife, she's overwhelmed, bitter and drunk, and Dick captures all this before the women's revolution sparked by The Feminine Mystique.

Dombrosio's wife is another story. Push comes to shove between Walt and Leo, and Dombrosio loses first his license, for drunken driving, and then his job. In the process of driving him back and forth to work, his wife, Sherry, lands a job and takes control of the family finances and, for the first time since their marriage, her life.

Dick lets this all play out against activities in the town center, where the gents hole up at Town Hall — not you, Leo — and play elaborate practical jokes.

Meanwhile, leaching fields on the mountain start filling with corruption, making the neighborhood an even harder sell. Watching, Leo reflects: "You can move out here . . . a civilized, cultured man of the world, and shortly you are seated on the same hole as the rest of them: you are crapping into a long pipe and treading on the same stuff."

Long before we gave it a thought, Dick's characters saw what population expansion was doing to the environment. Using a family of deformed settlers, he addresses industrial pollution, also well before its time. Meanwhile, workmen dig up what looks like a Neanderthal skull on Walt's land.

It won't be long before all these threads come together, and if resolution for Leo comes out of left field, never mind. Dick was a gifted writer born 50 years too soon.

Kit Reed's new novel, "Enclave," is just out.

The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike

By Philip K. Dick

Tor Books, 304 pages, $25.95

Review: Philip K. Dick uses a suburban crystal ball in 1960's 'The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike' 02/21/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 21, 2009 3:30am]
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