By Drew Hart
Desert Oracle is an omnibus, a kind of hand-drawn map, as well as a bit of a crackup — something you will peruse and possibly find the route leading to a deeper dive.
Desert Oracle, Volume 1 by Ken Layne. MCD/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; 304 pp.
All aboard with the iconoclastic Ken Layne, formerly a creator behind famed online gazettes — Wonkette, Gawker, and the Awl — who chucked city hipsterdom for a life in the vicinity of Joshua Tree, CA. (Ed. note: a place that has become almost insufferably “woke” in the time of the Pandemic — Brooklyn with chollas and creosote bushes?) There, six years ago, he began chronicling life in the Mojave and points adjacent in a seasonal (sometimes only occasionally appearing) chapbook-like magazine with the same name as this book, which is a compendium of articles and tales first seen in its issues.
You will go headlong into Layne’s world, which is alternately enthralled and appalled by the subject at hand. Beginning with a piece entitled “Try Not to Die,” which offers helpful hints on desert survival tactics — don’t worry, there’s even reassuring advice on how to manage if you feel you are about to die out there (“find a place in the shade, if there’s any shade. None of us live forever.”) — Desert Oracle wanders further than Moses in the Sinai. To wit, some choice entries:
Desert Sasquatches are a thing! They have appeared to many in different shapes and forms: with wings; seven feet tall, blue-eyed and hairy — one haunted Edwards Air Force Base, of “Right Stuff” fame. There is tell, too, of an ancient civilization with ten-foot giants, and their kingdom of gold, now underground after thriving for centuries by vast lakes.
Yeah, here be monsters, not just Gila Monsters — and also innumerable dreamers, quacks, survivalists. Wyatt Earp, long past his heyday, makes an appearance. So does L. Ron Hubbard, the father of Scientology, and a pal of his, Jack Parsons, founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; among their other accomplishments, they said they’d found a way to open a ‘hole in the sky,’ a “hole in space and time.” Meet the notorious bandit, Tiburcio Vasquez, who served as the inspiration for the great Southern California folk hero, Zorro. William S. Burroughs is on the program, as a sickly teenager; ditto for J. Robert Oppenheimer. And the permanently sick Charlie Manson is around too…
Other encounters are of supernatural and paranormal varieties: there’s a high gear preoccupation with alien visits and UFO sightings, along with accounts of late-night talk radio hosts who broadcast stories and conspiracy theories across the region. Uncertainty lives on the edge — Layne contends that desert life is fringe dwelling, and things happen that are never going to happen in Peoria. Anyone can fall under the spell: even President Eisenhower, whose overnight disappearance from Palm Springs one night in 1954 has been ascribed to both extraterrestrial abduction and… emergency dental work?
Desert Oracle, to sum up, is an omnibus, a kind of hand-drawn map, as well as a bit of a crackup — something you will peruse and possibly find the route leading to a deeper dive. You’ll want to listen to cowboy singer Marty Robbins and “Texas Swing” pioneer Bob Wills, to read the great gadfly essayist of the West, Ed Abbey. A few bits repeat themselves in different entries — no one will care. Your faithful correspondent, who once moved to Los Angeles partially because the desert was within reach, was more than delighted, and is pleased that this is only “Volume 1.”
Drew Hart is from Santa Barbara, California