Cocaine Nights

Ballard, J. G.

Published by Counterpoint 2010-01-05, 2010
ISBN 10: 1582435707 / ISBN 13: 9781582435701
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Synopsis: In Cocaine Nights, J. G. Ballard stretches the taught canvas of his transgressive vision over the framework of old-fashioned mystery. The setting: the swank Spanish resort of Estrella de Mar, where young retirees from Europe's chillier climes bask in a lifestyle of endless leisure. Into the queasy beauty of this artificial environment steps Charles Prentice, a London travel writer who has come to visit his brother Frank, manager of Club Nautico—tennis and swim club by day, coked-up discotheque by night. Frank is in jail, having confessed to setting an explosive fire that has taken five alive. Certain the confession was coerced, Charles lances his own investigation. But Frank isn't interested in salvation, and the Spanish police don't want their open-and-shut case corrupted by a meddling Brit. Refusing to abandon his crusade, Charles soon finds himself drawn into Estrella de Mar's dark underworld, and as Cocaine Nights accelerates toward its disturbing climax, Ballard once again reveals his visionary mastery.

Review: When travel writer Charles Prentice arrives at Estrella de Mar, a resort town near Gibraltar populated primarily by British retirees, to find out why his brother Frank has been jailed, he's shocked to find that Frank has confessed to a spectacular act of arson that left five people dead. Charles tries to find the real culprit by hanging around Estrella de Mar, which one resident describes as "like Chelsea or Greenwich Village in the 1960s. There are theatre and film clubs, a choral society, cordon blue classes.... Stand still for a moment and you find yourself roped into a revival of Waiting for Godot." But the longer he stays, the more confused Charles is by the residents' breezy lack of concern about the constant background of vandalism, rape, prostitution, and drug dealing.

Things become clearer as Charles makes the acquaintance of local tennis pro Bobby Crawford, who has some interesting hypotheses about how to maintain the quality of the inner life in the age of affluence. As another of the locals explains, "Leisure societies lie ahead of us, like those you see on this coast. People ... will retire in their late thirties, with fifty years of idleness in front of them.... But how do you energize people, give them some sense of community?" Bobby's succinct answer, provided to Charles in another context: "There's nothing like a violent reflex now and then to tune up the nervous system." Bobby convinces Charles to help him replicate his social experiment in an adjacent retirement community, slowly convincing him that crime and creativity really do go hand in hand. But who, if anybody, takes the responsibility?

Cocaine Nights resonates quite neatly with Ballard's earlier science fiction and experimental stories. As early as The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard was speculating about the salubrious effects of transgression, and his science fiction novel High Rise also deals with the introduction of violence to a self-contained paradise. Cocaine Nights differs from that earlier work primarily in that it is a naturalistic fiction set in a world that is much more ostensibly real, a world that, with a little less detached theorizing (even at his most natural, it seems, Ballard cannot help but be clinical) on the part of its characters, might even be mistaken for real. --Ron Hogan

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Bibliographic Details

Title: Cocaine Nights
Publisher: Counterpoint 2010-01-05
Publication Date: 2010
Binding: Paperback
Book Condition: Very Good
Edition: 0.

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