Reviewed by Timothy Thomas
An audacious examination of how modern civilization exploits our drive for basic necessities and comfort
The Lay-Off House takes that which is a depressing hurdle to the bounty of life’s joys and transforms it into something heartwarming and provocative. David Rogers Jr.’s novel is grounded and painful, but he takes from that darkness a compelling story that re-examines our base desires.
Doug has been laid off for the fourth time. He takes it in stride, retreating to the loneliness of his fixer-upper old Victorian mansion to drink and work on the house (but mostly drink) until Tyler, an ex-coworker from the same company, shows up out of the blue and asks to move in, offering to help with the mortgage and house repairs.
Tyler’s friendship and easygoing attitude helps pull Doug out of his post-termination slump, so when Tyler then asks Doug if Polly, another out-of-work coworker in need of a place to stay, could move in as well, Doug agrees.
Polly is the daughter of rich parents who have no compunction about expressing their disapproval of their daughter’s new living arrangements, but her refusal to move back in under the stifling judgment and expectation of her parents’ roof makes her ideal for the small community developing in Doug’s house.
About a month later, a chance encounter with Malcolm and his wife, Rosalinda, in the parking lot of a store brings them and their two children, Marco and Clara, into the home as well. They are all too grateful for the help. Malcolm had worked as a maintenance technician at the company until he was laid off, resulting in a forceful eviction from their apartment and life lived in their minivan. The addition of the family to the house gives new life to its old walls, and for the first time in the six years since he’d lived there, Doug feels comfortable.
As the housemates settle into their new living situations, they each find ways to contribute to the functioning of the household while simultaneously dealing with the personal fallout from their lay-offs. For Malcolm, that means sitting outside the hardware store early every morning as a day-laborer for hire despite the often difficult and dangerous settings of the work, while his wife contemplates how to get their children, who have been out of school for a few months now, back in.
Tyler becomes a freelance coder, which to him is “easy work” that affords him the free time to game as much as he’d like. Polly, meanwhile, gets a job as a barista at a coffee shop until she quits due to the excessive and uncomfortable attention one of the regulars give her, which frees her to dedicate her time to a new pursuit: starting a farm in Doug’s backyard.
Enlisting the aid of Malcolm, who’s eager to leave the curb of the hardware store for better pay at home, she gets to work preparing the ground for planting until the undercurrents of racism, classism, and childhood cruelty in the community boil over, bringing the HOA to Doug’s door.
The Lay-Off House is a reckoning with society’s preoccupation of conflating employment with personal value. It confidently illustrates how changes in employment status result in changes to others’ perception of you, how the things we enjoy doing in life are generally overruled by the need to be marketable to the corporations, and how climbing the corporate ladder means, in many cases, losing or failing to gain basic knowledge about life itself in exchange for skills that are only applicable in corporate environments.
This story is both heartbreaking and inspiring. It does not give in to extravagant plot-lines to keep the reader’s attention but appeals instead to our humanity, illustrating the difficult choices life presents to us—if life is the institutions humankind has created.
I would recommend this book to its audience with confidence, for author David J. Rogers’ ability to take characters from so many walks of life and to detail what it means for them to be fired is quite awe-inspiring. The Lay-Off House encapsulates the conflict between life and employment; it highlights how we are bonded by our humanity and how far we can go if we travel together.
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