by Rebecca Schoenkopf
Ken Layne holds the phone. The kids need something, or the dog needs to be let out or brought back in, or he is saying goodbye to his wife before she heads to work, or maybe all three. It’s a few minutes before he returns and we return to our brief but clear primer on how remnant advertising works online: if you search for “diapers,” every web site you go to for a while will show an ad for Huggies on the side. Huggies does not specifically advertise on Wonkette, the delightfully vile political gossip website (because that would not make a lick of sense!), so when one of Layne’s young charges on the site posted a very stupid piece making fun of Trig Palin for being retarded, and Sarah Palin’s army went Fukushima on his ass, Huggies was on the list of giant conglomerations to target. Someone who’d searched for diapers saw a Huggies ad in conjunction with the Trig hit piece, and all of a sudden everyone who’d ever bought a remnant ad on Wonkette promised solemnly never to do so again, including Huggies, also too.
Wonkette was in trouble, which was perhaps fitting. The site was the reason some of us were far ahead of the curve in even knowing who Sarah Palin was when John McCain announced her as his veep choice; Wonkette had early recognized her comeliness, naming her a GILF, or Governor [They’d] Like to Fuck, and those of us in the know were able to explain to others that she was from Alaska, and she was gorgeous. That remains pretty much everything you need to know; she is best ignored.
It turns out Ken Layne, the editor of Wonkette and my friend (I assume he would agree), doesn’t even like politics. He likes the desert—he and his family live near Joshua Tree—and its beauty and its emptiness except when it is fouled by idiots, which is often. He tells me his family is close enough to civilization in Joshua Tree for their necessary amenities; there is Pappy & Harriet’s for drinks and great music, and there is a yoga studio, but the family’s favorite bakery shut down, leading Layne to teach himself to bake bread and I’m sorry but that is hilarious.
I have called Layne on the phone for the first time in maybe 15 years, certainly a decade; we were set up on a date once, and it ended badly enough that we didn’t speak for an awfully long time, but for the past several years we have emailed occasionally, and when I was editor at LA CityBeat he agreed (via email) to write me a twice-monthly column, called “Desert Rattler,” on his life in the Mojave. I am convinced it was the most beautiful writing to appear in any American newspaper that year. We also put into place a content-sharing arrangement whereby CityBeat got all of Wonkette’s content, and Wonkette got to give it. Win win!
Ken Layne (illustration by Paul Takizawa)
But I have called Layne on the phone to talk about his book, which I ate up in three hours (and with a spoon), and which is called Dignity, and which is so beautiful—haunting and scary, with a dark dystopic Handmaid’s Tale vibe that then shifts slowly to a utopic Ecotopia, and everything ends as well as could be hoped for when the off-the-gridders of Dignity are persecuted by the State basically for being Freegans, which the State considers to be Terrorism (because of course it does).
In style, Dignity is an epistolary novel, as if it were Paul writing the Galatians. In plot, it focuses on a group of unemployed regular folks in Echo Park who begin to garden together in an empty lot, and set up a free ongoing garage sale for junk they don’t need, and are quickly targeted by agents provocateur who brand them terrorists. They go on the run, some of them more successfully than others, and they squat on an abandoned exurban tract, living off the land and sharing their ways with the legion who follow. In theme, Layne takes on our separation from the land via our vampiric computer screens, and commands us back to nature. In focus are many of Layne’s longtime obsessions: the housing market, the vulgarities of both rich and poor, the built environment. (A band of freegans takes over a Best Buy or somesuch, a nod to an architectural firm Layne admired a decade ago that was reimagining Wal-Marts with glass and basketball hoops. He remembers thinking then: “If only we had a financial collapse, maybe that could happen.”)
Layne is, rightly, a cynical man. He became obsessed with the housing market when he and his wife lived in Reno, right at the peak of the bubble, and early foreclosures began to be gutted down to their concrete floors; they moved to the Mojave, where they bought a nine-year-old house that is already falling apart (Layne has himself fixed the things about the construction that personally offended him)—and out of which the previous owners withdrew money four times. Then came a final refi, and the owners were gone.
Everywhere Layne looked in the Mojave were women beating their dogs in Burger King parking lots and drunken louts tearing up the sensitive desert on their horrible all-terrain machines. The country was terrible. And as some of us—people like Layne and me, for instance—were suggesting that perhaps $1 million was a mite high for a three-bedroom tract house, Henry Paulson was enjoying his semi-retirement as Secretary of the Treasury, doodling about unmolested by worry. According to the enjoyable HBO program Too Big to Fail, once the market shattered, Alan Greenspan suggested buying up all the excess housing stock and burning it to the ground. My suggestion for the problem of excess housing was somewhat less destructive: buy it up and turn it into Section 8. But Layne’s suggestion in Dignity was even better than mine: take over the excess housing stock and take it back to the land! Which is weird, because that is not cynical at all!
Maybe it’s the children, the wife, a good life of daily five-to-ten-mile walks with the dog and baking the bread for his family (and no television because of course) in the fragile beautiful desert, or maybe it was the act of writing through his plot and his longtime obsessions, but a book that starts out cynical and frightening ends with hope and a movement toward simple, happy, and rich humanity. I wouldn’t have expected it from Ken Layne. I always thought that guy hated everything.