Ghost Town Apostle
By Ken Layne
Elora Peak Press
First we wanted to eat fresh food that didn’t make us feel sick, and next we were literally running for our lives, the police and the government at our doors and then at our backs. But that is getting ahead of things.
For those of you who don’t know Ken Layne, his style of writing on the Internet can be jarringly acerbic. For about five years, roughly 2006-2011, Layne managed the political blog Wonkette, which specializes in hyper-satirical, often scatological takedowns of current political events. Usually, Layne writes like this:
Good news, hamburglars! Industrial cow-parts processor “McDonaldland Corporation” will hire 50,000 of the nation’s 24,300,000 million officially unemployed, “involuntary part-time” and “discouraged” workers. Just show up at your local McDonald’s (or the other one, at the next offramp) on April 19 and you may be one of the lucky .002% of unwanted American laborers to get a job assembling McGriddles at 5 a.m. until robots take over all fast food jobs in 2014. Winning the Future!
So it was some surprise to learn that Layne’s 2011 epistolary novel Dignity is written in a gentle-but-compelling spiritualist tone. The cynical rage and disgust that are hallmarks of Layne’s writing are present, but muted. The usual anguish is mere counterpoint to an overtly optimistic message that some people, some very few people, are capable of rejecting and rising above the poisonous elements of modern society. Some, here, being a relief from Layne’s usual allowance of none.
Dignity was written during the worst of the late-2000s bursting housing bubble and takes place in a future eerily close to the present. If the housing bubble already feels too last decade to you, it is easy to imagine the immediacy of Dignity’s “future” by picturing what would have happened if the United States had defaulted on its debt last summer. One additional breakdown in negotiations – a thoroughly plausibly possibility – would have set off a massive and terrible economic reshuffling, with millions more middle and working class people suddenly finding themselves in the poverty-stricken underclass. That’s not to say Dignity’s vision of the future is Mad Max apocalyptic. Part of the genius of the book is the way Layne barely tweaks the conditions of the present, and then keeps all of the consequences of those tweaks firmly within the possibilities of that present – – Detroit minus the auto-industry bailout, but for the whole United States. Dignity never actually pins down a moment or event when things got worse compared to now, because part of its goal is to speak directly to the many people who feel like things are already quite bad enough.
The narrator, “N,” speaks through a series of letters to disparate communities that have sprung up in the aftermath of the housing collapse. It is quickly apparent that the communities are living in the vacant, unfinished housing tracts that were the physical manifestations of the bubble’s excess. N’s letters are all addressed to the focus-grouped community names originally intended for these now-abandoned housing tracts, names that take on a heightened artificiality in Layne’s hands: “To my brothers and sisters at Shadow Vista Estates.” And because the letters are written by one person to an array of acquaintances or friends-of-friends throughout central California, there is very little overt discussion of economic conditions nationwide. Omitting those details in favor of implications is effective, similar to the lack of explicitness about the catastrophe in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
Layne lives just outside the Mojave Desert, where the bubble-driven sprawl tumbling out of Los Angeles was particularly egregious. Dense tracts of cookie-cutter McMansions abutting some of the driest, most inhospitable landscape in the country made it painfully obvious that the rationale of the bankrollers, Lehman Brothers et al, was to build and sell as quickly as possible. Fees from the original sale were the goal, so agents were encouraged to offer irresponsible mortgage terms and encourage house-flipping speculators. When the bottom dropped out, the shells of these now-worthless houses and construction sites became monuments to hubris. Layne’s trademark irony is given plenty to work with as he turns these destructive monstrosities into opportunities for the disaffected to found genuine communities along a co-operative farming model. His love of the flora and fauna of his desert home is also present on nearly every page.
That these distant abandoned tracts would be the final heavy burden on a worldwide house of cards was utterly unknown to these so-called developers, as they raped the desert crust and crushed hundred-year-old tortoises asleep in their burrows and toppled the ancient Joshua trees and scraped the ground of yucca and cactus and blooming brush.
But in their dumb greed, they left us the physical framework of our first communities.
Through flashbacks, N describes how the first of these communities came to be, and especially the authoritarianism that stood in the way throughout the process. N and his friends, a group of “privileged adults of extended adolescence,” are centered around a charismatic man referred to as “B.” It all starts when B suggests the group turn a vacant lot in their LA neighborhood into a vegetable garden. Weekly dinners are established, wherein cell phones are checked at the door and the food is either from their garden or from another non-processed source. Things are hunky-dory for a while, except for the participants’ increasing dissatisfaction with their khaki-colored cubical slavery, which the lovely dinners throw into sharp contrast. The frequency of the dinners increases and, as members of the group are laid off, they begin to devote more and more of themselves to gardening and shedding consumer society’s excesses.
By this point the authorities have already come up in passing. Across from the garden, county sheriffs are seen acting like the military arm of Goldman Sachs as they evict blameless tenets from their apartment because the building’s absentee owner has defaulted on a loan. Various establishment agencies also harass the group of friends for the crime of turning a vacant bit of blight into a community garden, despite the fact that no one can establish who really owns it. The gang opens a “0¢ Store” as a depot for distributing surplus vegetables and ridding themselves of soul-eroding “chunks of plastic and electronics.” As word of these activities spreads through social networks, the authorities come down hard on B. He is arrested and portrayed by the media as an “economic predator targeting our weakest neighborhoods.” B is released after six months in jail, at which point ten members of the group are ready to follow B’s lead straight out of town.
B, N, and their group form the first desert community. “The largest structure – a gargantuan obscenity that could’ve sheltered fifty people but was designed for perhaps five – B designated as the common house.” The water supply was installed before the tract was abandoned and the engineer of the group turns it on to a low dribble, a test state, that they hope will go unnoticed. “With our compost and borrowed water and desert sunshine, the crops grew quick and plentiful.” Then B, in his mysterious, itinerant way, leaves to help found more such communities.
Each new collective, described at a remove by N, is set up and inhabited by like-minded people, those who want to escape economic tyranny and the social conditions that take beautiful natural landscapes – like southern California – and turn them into grumpy, numbing, mental prisons. The communities are highly decentralized, and they are the opposite of cookie-cutter. N’s letters have a Paul the Apostle quality as he lays out instructions and encouragement designed to last: they are encouraged to be flexible about rules and avoid squabbling over eating meat or forbidding it, engaging in commerce with nearby towns or avoiding such commerce. At this point, Dignity is the anti-Altas Shrugged. Both have communities of those who have fled their parasitic enemies, but whereas Rand posits the community will be based on iron-clad capitalism and (delusional) individualism, Layne embraces a barter-based, quasi-communism and overlapping circles of mutual aid.
B stood and grinned at me and gave me a quick embrace, but instead of asking about the missing years between us, he sat cross-legged again and resumed the conversation with Celia and the physician. They were coming to terms on the use of a medical clinic in an office park down by the interstate. The negotiations were friendly, but I was surprised at the bargaining from B – in the end, the doctor agreed that he and his small staff would be available to the communities in emergencies and on Fridays in exchange for a weekly supply of fresh food for the medical staff and their families.
“And flowers,” the doctor said. “My wife insists on fresh flowers. And also honey.”
With that, they put their hands together and Celia offered lemonade to everyone.
“The doctor here doesn’t like to get his hands in the soil,” B said by way of introduction to me. “But he doesn’t mind delivering our babies or patching up our bloody wounds now and then.”
“My ancestors would die again of shame if I became a farmer,” the doctor said. “It’s not for me to grow spinach and onions. Anyway, you have a healthy population here. Not too much work for me, right?”
When the man left, B stretched out on the cool granite and said to me, “And that’s how we got ourselves a doctor.”
Dignity is uplifting, in the sense that it describes positive, humanistic reactions to some of the most egregious forms of greed and authoritarianism ever seen in modern western society. That said, Layne’s skill and track record of describing that greed and totalitarianism in the most sardonic terms imaginable gives that message a decidedly grim undertone. But anyone who has seen footage of high-ranking police officers pepper-spraying peacefully assembled Occupy Wall Street protesters will recognize that his beef with bone-headed authority is hardly overdramatized. In fact, it was only a few months after Dignity was published that Occupy Wall Street and its decentralized offshoots sprang into existence.
The Occupy movement was a many-headed beast, so it is difficult to ascribe to it a concrete set of goals. But many instances of Occupy’s behavior are foreshadowed in Dignity. One of the main moral crimes identified in Dignity is wasting tangible resources to serve bureaucratic ends. The garden in the vacant lot is destroyed despite the fact the no one knows who owns it. The unoccupied houses and golf courses that could be used to grow and feed communities are stuck in a legal limbo that could take decades to untangle. Layne takes some poetic license to keep his characters on a solid legal footing as they squat on these properties, while intimating that if the owners ever actually show up and want to start using their land the transient tenants would be obligated to move on. But employing riot cops to keep it all empty and unused in the meantime is absolutely tragic in its wastefulness. And the Occupy protesters didn’t just share this sentiment; they packed it into their rucksacks and took it with them out into the world. I am not suggesting that Dignity itself directly influenced the movement, but instances of shared philosophy and shared targets for ire highlight the extent to which Ken Layne is plugged into the zeitgeist.
There are a slew of books that cover the housing collapse and recession from a global perspective. But Dignity stands out for the intimacy it brings to a bottom-up look at the ramifications of our rigged economic system. And it particularly stands out for having the last thing I expected in a book by Ken Layne: a glimmer of hope.
Jeffrey Eaton is a fundraiser, amateur photographer, and Open Letters Monthly editor-at-large. He lives in Washington, D.C.