PUTTERING ABOUT IN A SMALL LAND
The diffidence of the title is appropriate: this is a subtle, minimalist portrait of two American couples circa 1953 by the late Dick--a writer best known for his sardonic, pyrotechnic science fiction. Only the second of his early realistic novels to see print (Confessions of a Crap Artist appeared in 1975), this is set in postwar southern California, with excellent flashbacks to a Forties milieu of around-the-clock defense plants and the dogged, weary workers who staffed them. Dick's central characters, Roger and Virginia Lindahl, have gravitated to California from wartime Washington, D.C. Rootless and ill-matched, they stay shakily together until their small son's enrollment in a private school creates a crisis. Dick, whose message throughout his career had to do with the dangers of totalitarianism (seen by him in a thousand guises), once said the menace lurked even in private relationships--whenever "someone. . .is more powerful than you." Perhaps this conviction inspired his focus on the shifting balance of power in the marriage of Roger and Virginia Lindahl. Roger is an Arkansas farm boy, a drifter and dreamer who has already abandoned one family and who sticks with Virginia after the war only because his overbearing, Boston-bred mother-in-law sets him up in his own TV sales and repair shop. His all-too-poised wife Virginia, on the other hand, is a soi disant aristocrat involved in "therapeutic dance," unconsciously hostile not only to Roger but also to her small son. When Roger and Virginia meet another couple with children in this son's private school--uptight Chic Bonner and his slatternly but rather appealing wife Liz--both couples begin to disintegrate. Though Dick never quite brings off Roger Lindahl (he emerges as likeable but too habitually cerebral to be convincing as an uneducated "natural"), he nonetheless writes perceptively of his California setting. If published when written during the 1950's, chances are that this distinctly uncommercial character study would have sunk without a trace. Its strongest appeal in 1985 is likely to be its sketchy but memorable re-creation of the real ambiance of the war and postwar years--an era that popular myth has already eroded into a series of "Happy Days" clichâ€šs.