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
From Publishers Weekly
This new novel by the celebrated nihilist who brought us such underground classics as Crash and Concrete Island is fairly mild by Ballard standards. It involves kinky goings-on in a wealthy British resort community in Gibraltar, where there's not much to do but suntan, get high and play sex games. Narrator Charles Prentice is a travel writer who has been summoned to Estrella de Mar by his brother, the manager of the Club Nautico, who has confessed to setting a fire that killed five people in the villa of the wealthy Hollinger family. Charles knows Frank didn't do it, and so does everyone else, so Frank's motivation is a mystery. The delinquent shenanigans around town soon point to Frank's devoted tennis pro Bobby Crawford, who, with the missionary zeal of a sociopath, rouses the anesthetized residents of Estrella de Mar with violence and fear. "You've seen the future and it doesn't work or play. People are locking their doors and switching off their nervous systems. I can free them," Crawford says. Ballard keeps the dialogue snappy and true; however, the leisurely pace, the comings and goings of this Porsche and that BMW, all the swimming and tennis practice sap the novel of any tension. Moreover, Charles is a dud; the charge inherent in one of his first sentences, "My real luggage is rarely locked, its catches eager to be sprung," is never borne out by his actions or the relationship between him and his brother. Ballard's fascination with the illicit plays like a routine exercise, though his bleak picture of trouble in paradise has the ring of truth.
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