Populist Fatalism

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In his new epistolary novel, Dignity, about a new community founded in the unpaved cul-de-sacs and abandoned unfinished houses of the California desert, Ken Layne criticizes the material obsessions of contemporary capitalism.

In 2009, I interviewed author Ken Layne. He told me, “I had a kind of crisis just before [high school] graduation, in part set off by a lot of desert road trips and juvenile delinquent camping and discovering a book by Edward Abbey in the school library called Desert Solitaire.” When asked about the politics of the culture wars, he wrote: “This country has been in steep decline for three decades now… We haven’t seen this kind of income/wealth divide between the rich and the working poor since the 1920s, and America sure isn’t on the rise.” With statements like these and his other political writings on Wonkette, the political website he edits, it is no surprise what his politics and his worldview are. What is telling, however, is that he appears to be turning statements like those above into actions: he recently announced his retirement from the political blogosphere, and the release of his new novel, Dignity, seems to codify his ideas—the mystical power of the deserts of the American West and a populist fatalism—perfectly.

Dignity immediately makes you ask questions. Who is the messianic figure known only as “B?” Who is “N,” and why is he writing to communities thrown to the four corners of the desert West? What are the “three poisons” that the communities are to avoid? And why is it the book named after a single noun usually associated with self-respect and decency? The answers to these questions are delicately revealed over the course of this epistolary novel, but not by the way of traditional story development. He answers the questions strictly through mostly one-sided correspondence, and he does it masterfully. The only summary narrative you will find is not on its pages but on the back cover:

“A packet of hand-scrawled letters found in a stranger’s rucksack tells of self-sufficient communities growing from the ruins of California’s housing collapse and the global recession. In unfinished Mojave Desert housing tracts and foreclosure ghost towns on the raw edges of the chaotic cities of the West, people have gathered to grow their own food, school their own children and learn how to live without the poisons of gossip, greed, television, mobile phones, and the Internet.”

This summary captures the essence of the book, but it doesn’t truly explain the gravity that this book possesses. Dignity takes place over a 10- or 15-year period after a significant economic collapse. The collapse creates a radically new view—or a return to a primitive view—of material necessity and more importantly, the concepts of ownership and property. This is presented as a positive development by Layne’s primary scribe, the aforementioned “N,” but it comes with many extraordinary ills. The destroyed economy has also destroyed the tax base. Social services that once provided the basic needs for many people have been completely decimated in budget cuts. Public services like transportation and parks have met the same fate. Perhaps worst of all, the government has become hyper-militarized, resulting in paranoid and abusive behavior towards people who would have been considered citizens in the years before the collapse.

Within the turmoil and chaos of these revolutionary times, a small group in Los Angeles decides to go off-grid and try their hand at providing for themselves, eventually leaving the cities for the unpaved cul-de-sacs and unfinished houses abandoned by builders and financiers throughout the once-rapidly growing region. Layne makes these futuristic communities extraordinarily believable in several ways. He takes the current housing crisis and extrapolates it to believable ends, allowing the self-sustaining villages to carry their somewhat humorous subdivision monikers such as “Cabernet Ridge” and “Mariposa Landing.” He gets into the psychology of wants and needs to present a very believable moral and social landscape as well. The community members are refugees from contemporary society, and they bring with them the human baggage that accompanies any transitioning lifestyle and culture. In order to survive, they return to their most basic needs and rely on community to provide. They barter and build, harvest their own food, educate their own children, and police their own ranks. They also grow: by the end of the book, they spread all the way up the coast of California and into northern Nevada.

Layne also captures their spiritual needs in what is the most prominent undertone in this book: a return-to-earth paradigm. The denizens of places like “Hawk Ridge at Truckee Meadows” and the “Villages at Newhall Ranchos” are spiritual people. They ritualize evening meal times, musical fellowship, and solstice events. In fact, readers will notice that Layne’s epistolary novel is not comparable to its classic predecessors like Frankenstein or Dracula but far more similar to the New Testament of the Christian Bible. Like Paul the Apostle’s writings to the early churches after his conversion, the author of these letters, the mysterious “N,” spreads similar messages. The difference, of course, is in the theology, which is more akin to the writings and views of John Muir and Edward Abbey.

No doubt this is what Layne intends with this book. Dignity makes a statement about why we live the way we do, and why we are fearfully awaiting a grotesque collapse to make changes. At times, the cynical and violent government plots and the human despair in his desert towns seem to be warnings of how far mankind can fall, but that is not the whole story. As the title indicates, Layne is really writing about the opportunities underneath all of that human pain—opportunities for peace, for hope, for fulfillment, and above all, for basic dignity.

Caleb S. Cage is a graduate of the United States Military Academy, West Point, and a veteran of the Iraq War. He is the co-author of the book, The Gods of Diyala: Transfer of Command in Iraq (Texas A&M, 2008), about his time as a platoon leader, and his essays and fiction have appeared in War, Literature, and the Arts, Red Rock Review, High Country News, Small Wars Journal, and various other publications and anthologies. More from this author →