Late Australian documentary filmmaker and journalist Hirst spends a sequence of seasons with some of the California desert’s oddball inhabitants.
“Last year, no fewer than sixteen people went to be with Jesus within ten miles of my front door.” So writes the author of the deadly winding roads near his adopted home outside Pioneertown, a Manson-country enclave out in the Mojave Desert befitting Hunter S. Thompson–esque treatment. Hirst doesn’t quite attain the hallucinatory heights that would suit the odd surroundings, but they’re psychedelic all on their own, as he and his girlfriend take residence in a weird Mad Max–ish house “at the very end of Coyote Road, which, as most readers will know, snakes south from Roadrunner Rut and Gamma Gulch.“ Indeed, though it’s within spitting distance—meaning a 2.5 hour drive—from Los Angeles, the place is perched on the edge of Joshua Tree, a magnet for janglingly loose people from all over the world. Hirst portrays a few, including cowboy re-enactors, born-to-die parolees, and the man from whom he rented the aptly named Boulder House, a survivalist type given to exclaiming things like, “if I want to kill someone that’s my goddamn right, and I don’t give a red rat’s ass what anyone says.” Of his new home, Hirst writes, winningly, “if dogs could design and build a house, I expect this is about what they would have come up with." His character sketches are less successful, as after a time, one eccentric blends into another, and his history is sometimes sketchy: Junipero Serra wasn’t the nicest guy, but it’s a stretch to liken the California missions to concentration camps. Overall, the narrative is grittier but less substantial than what Robert Hughes might have done with the place; it’s often funny but rarely penetrating, and one always wishes for a little more.
Tertiary reading for buffs of the Mojave, who are better served by writers such as Deanne Stillman and Reyner Banham.