“Small Town” was published in Amazing in May 1954. I read it in We Can Remember It For Your Wholesale: The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick: Volume 2. It can be found there on pages 341–353.
Verne Haskel, tired and devastated from work, come home. He almost immediately talks to his wife about moving to another. He shows indifference to dinner, but refuses to eat out because he is sick of seeing people. He goes down to the basement to play with his train set. Despite wanting to move out of Woodland, he has used a model train set to create a precise replica of the town. He has been working on it since he was a child. He created copies of every store, every house, every detail down to the messages on the signs.
He watches the train go around the track. Ever since he was young he loved the train set. By adding to the set day by day and year by year he had built you his copy of the town. It is now almost complete. He takes special notice of Larson’s Pump and Valve Works, which was where he worked for 20 years. For those twenty years he build up resentments over the promotions of younger workers and answering to his boss and yes-men. In fact, he hated every aspect of the town, resenting even his wife. It was an upper-middle class town that always got the better of him. In a fit of anger he takes the model of Larson’s Pump and Valve Works and smashes it. He then quickly constructs a model of another building and calls is Woodland Mortuary, replacing his workplace in the model.
Madge Haskel, Verne’s wife is discussing Verne’s slow decline to a friend and doctor, Paul Tyler. She shows him the train set where he spends so much of his time. Paul is quite impressed with the skill the model displays. Paul suggests that the attraction of the train set to a man like Verne is the power it gives to him, power he lacks in real life. Taking a closer look, Paul notices some numerous alternations to the town. Madge makes it clear that her intention toward Paul and her reason for inviting him over is sexual.
That same morning, Verne quits his job at Larson’s, feeling liberated for the first time from a job of boredom and routine. He comes home early and surprises Madge and Paul who seem to have completed their sexual encounter. Verne, oblivious, tells Madge that he quit his job and goes down to work on the model town. He begins working furiously altering the town. Paul and Madge confront him although he largely ignores their pleas for an explanation. Verne only suggests that he is too busy to keep his job.
Working long into the night on his transformations, Verne is close to completing his job. He creates a much less upper middle class town, with fewer mansions and wealth neighborhoods. The city hall is rebuilt to resemble the Parthenon. He carried out some grudges, giving the homes of people who wronged him dilapidated buildings. The odious factory sector was replaced with parks and pastures. Jim Larson, his former boss, is gone entirely. By the end, he created an ideal community, perfectly moral, ideal for children, and egalitarian. He even made himself mayor by writing his name in minute letter on the office door in the city hall.
When Verne declares his victory in changing the town. Paul and Madge go downstairs and find both Verne and the model set missing. Paul and Madge are convinced that he has finally fallen entirely into his fantasy world. This will free the two of them to continue their affair and Verne will be happier. Madge does not fully understand, but Paul tries to tell her that Verne is entirely in his substitute world. They will need to go to the police station to report him missing. Paul explains to Madge that he realized that the mind constructs reality for itself. On their way to the police station they notice that the town has changed to match Verne’s model. The car stops in from of the Hellenized city hall and four police officers approach them.
Verne Haskel, the protagonist in “Small Town,” is both utterly horrifying and very sympathetic. He is sympathetic because he is a recognizable underling, who worked hard—despite abuse and boredom—for most of his life, suffering various abuses and insults. He seems to be skilled, but his talents are misapplied at his work. He is so inoffensive that he creates a model of his town, being true to every detail of the town that he has grown to hate. The story shows Verne rising to boldness and creativity. In a revolutionary moment he realizes that he does not need to accept the rules of his community. He begins to recreate the model into the perfect town for him, making himself the mayor of a little police state. While what he creates is sometimes a bit odd, what we find praiseworthy is his sudden transformation to boldness (A Walter White of sorts). Verne has real grievances against many of the people in his life. His ultimate revenge over them is certainly satisfying.
The other reading of Verne Haskel is to separate our sympathy for his situation and look at what he actually does. He carries on the delusion of every urban planner, who thinks that a perfect, ideal community can be created simply by building the right things in the right areas. Their totalitarian delusions of grandeur are revealed in every major urban renewal project and in every step toward gentrification. Verne makes himself the mayor of his little paradise, uses the police to enforce his will (and it seems extract revenge). He is the ultimate example of urban tyranny and the hero of any urban planner who has had to deal with community organizations. Verne Haskel has much in common with the world-builders in Eye in the Sky, one of Dicks first novels and one that deals with the question of creating the perfect world and describes just how horrific that is in practice.
Dick actually seems to prefer a unity of these two interpretations. He wrote: “Verne Haskel initially appears as the prototype of the impotent human being, but this conceals a drive at his core self which is anything but weak. It is as if I am saying, The put-upon person may be very dangerous. Be careful as to how you misuse him; he may be a mask for thanatos: the antagonist of life; he may not secretly wish to rule; he may wish to destroy.” (381)
Ah, we have another adulterous wife. Perhaps I will work on an accounting of these for researchers. At least this one is with a human male. Dick explored several examples of desperate housewives having affairs with all sorts of oddities. The causes of the adultery seem to be the same. It is rather hard to say that Dick has it out for women, since almost all of the women in his stories who do have affairs are suffering through entirely banal marriages.
Audiobook reading of “Small Town”