Bad juju in Paradise

Alex Garland's astonishing first novel echoes "Dog Soldiers" and "Lord of the Flies" in its discovery of the hell that lurks in paradise.

Published February 11, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

one of the many great things about 26-year-old Alex Garland's remarkable first novel is that you won't have to look for it amid the neoprimitive porn of Tower Books' Outpost department. Refreshingly free of forced irony, pomo shuck-and-jive and transgressive machismo, "The Beach" is distinguished by Garland's bracingly transparent prose and tells a classic story of generational envy and displacement. Much like the crystal-clear lagoon where it takes place, this astonishingly assured first novel is a smooth surface behind whose sunny scrim hides heaps of bad juju.

Tapping into every beach bum's, er, traveler's island fantasy, Garland teases out the consequences of life on the Perfect Beach. Echoing "Dog Soldiers" as much as "Lord of the Flies," Garland discovers the hell lurking in heaven's tide pools while delivering as much karmic payback as anything since "Treasure Island." Primitives vs. sophisticates, nature vs. culture, life vs. art -- it's all here, in language whose gripping and deceptive simplicity masks something dreadful and true. Garland's timeless fluid sentences seem to seek the clarity that Hemingway sought, without descending into self-parody for an instant.

At a Ko Sanh Road guest house on the outskirts of Bangkok, a young British roamer named Richard is given a map to paradise by a damaged, suicidal Vietnam veteran known only as "Daffy Duck." Richard makes a fatal error (involving a hilarious pair of Americans posing as stoned numskulls of the Bill and Ted variety) just before he lights out in search of the island, accompanied by a cute French couple. Edenic as promised, the island supports a small multinational community of apparently permanent residents, as well as jealously guarded dope fields. A demanding earth mother named Sal and her intimidating Viet-vet boyfriend, Bugs, dominate this fragile fellowship of pot-smoking survivalists. The island is their own personal pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. "We're trying to make a place that won't turn into a beach resort," says Sal.

Life on the beach has an "amnesiac effect"; Richard learns little about his companions (fellow "Prisoners of the Sun" according to one chapter title) apart from their national origin. As an "FNG" -- Fucking New Guy in local-speak -- Richard quickly integrates himself into a European-American community divided tidily into fishers, gardeners, carpenters and cooks. Fragmented and nationalized, the community has little coherence other than its Sunday soccer games and affinity for hedonism. In this degree-zero existence, the only vestige of the outside world is a single Gameboy, emblematic of everything they've left behind.

The island community's token outsider is Jed, an American who patrols the border between their civilized NATO universe and the Third World dope acreage. After joining Jed on an unsettling "rice run" to the nearest city, Richard transfers from fishing detail to patrol duty. A death wish blossoms within him when "Mr. Duck" returns with a (literal) vengeance as Richard's taunting shadowy double. Yet Garland makes Richard's descent into madness an innocuous slide. "A lot of our conversation," he writes, "was about commonplace stuff ... It was hard to stay shocked by somebody while you were talking about Star Wars."

A slacker with a snoot full of second-hand Vietnam culture (it could as easily have been World War I or II), Richard loses himself in a dangerous fantasy world. The Vietnam he longs for is the bewitching creation of mass media, from Michael Herr's "Dispatches" to Oliver Stone's "Platoon." (Why else do so many young Americans currently look to Saigon as a sexual rite of passage on the path to middle-class stability?) Richard is both smarter and more impressionable than the average hedonist, however. When his big mistake returns to haunt him, the beach quickly becomes a vulnerable beachhead; each increasingly awful event taints Garland's sunny scenario like blood drops slowly shading clear water.

Just as the first part of the novel deals with finding paradise, its conclusion describes an equally powerful desire to get the hell out. The whole sick scene loses its mushroom-charged appetite during the community's annual Tet celebration, a fungi-laced fete that quickly turns into a bad trip and a half. In the end, it's all about one young man's Vietnam, something happening here, what it is not being exactly clear. A sacrificial offering is finally made and something awful laid to rest, perhaps the idea of the beach itself. The book concludes perfectly, with an image as confusingly beautiful as modern primitivism gets.

Do the author a favor and ignore the hackneyed hype about Alex Garland and "The Beach" speaking for a generation. Publishers and publicists have to say that sort of thing nowadays to reassure audiences of their product's hipness, and to establish marketable name brands. Garland's deceptively transparent book would have been just as momentous and refreshing if it had been written 20 years ago. Take it for what it is: a luminous voyage into the dark side of humanity's increasingly tenuous dreams of paradise.

By Richard Gehr

Richard Gehr has been writing about music, books, film, television, and other aspects of popular culture for more than two decades. He has contributed to several books and written for Rolling Stone, Vibe, O, the New York Times Book Review, and Spin.

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