Nothing To See Here: Chapbook Review

To all disillusioned city-dwellers dreaming about abandoning their metropolitan hustle for a wound-down existence out in the desert, to all of you who are so over L.A., read Jail Weddings’ front man Gabriel Hart’s new chapbook Nothing To See Here before pulling the trigger on your move.

Part one of his “High Desert Anti-Tourism Propaganda” campaign, Nothing To See Here follows Hart’s idealistic Cinema of Life, in which he describes his creeping sense that L.A. would probably kill him if he and his girlfriend didn’t relocate for the hopeful “great-equalizer” of the High Desert, which for them becomes the unincorporated township of Morongo Valley, CA.

This piece continues a year or so later with two fictionalized Morongo Valley transplants named Conner and Luna. The twilight happiness at the end of Cinema of Life was fleeting; it wasn’t a romantic walk into the sunset followed by an Iris Out for this couple. The craziness of L.A. is gone, but Conner and Luna have traded it up for a possibly stranger world of fugitive Confederates with wild dogs, rotting deer carcasses, an active pyromaniac named Crazy Randy, and a deathly, far-reaching gas-like smell that no one seems to care about.

Author Gabriel Hart reading at Stories Bookstore in Echo Park, Los Angeles.

In (what they thought was) their dream home, Conner and Luna’s dread builds as they go on marathon fights that last until dawn, slowly coming apart at a time when they had expected to come closer together. The ramblings of the desert crazies all around them start sounding progressively more rational. The urge to buy that gun Luna never wanted becomes a reasonable step, something they probably should have done a long time ago.

A noirishly bleak and simultaneously sweet passage about that strange gas/rotten egg smell (actually coming from the mass death of fish in the Salton Sea) will remind you of Raymond Chandler or Ross McDonald at their best, if either had moved the locale of their prose out of L.A. and to the desert:

“I didn’t hear back from her. My mood plummets, knowing her silence equates to a barricading depression that she is doing her best not to ruin our day with. I look to the South at the Salton Sea’s miasmic marine layer, as it continues over La Quinta and down the 10 all the way into the mountains where she silently cries, and in my vain attempt to put a positive spin on everything, I see this vast umbilical vapor of decay as the one single thing connecting Luna and I to each other during this season.”

Hart, already an accomplished songwriter, has honed his prose since his previous chapbook. It’s cleaner and wiser. For all its punch-in-the-gut darkness, many of his anecdotes are hilarious. If you plan to leave the insane city for the desert like Conner and Luna, maybe your exodus will work out just like you thought it would, maybe you’ll achieve that dreamy ending, just like in a movie — what Conner and Luna find is continued insanity without the metropolitan distraction. Nothing To See Here, which was published by Space Cowboy Books in Joshua Tree, is a dire and heartfelt reminder that our lives rarely work out the way we plan.