I was supposed to go to Montreal a couple of years ago for a Labor Day vacation. I had it all planned out; a lovely weekend trip to Canada with some friends; we would eat chocolate, speak French, enjoy some bagels and ukelele, and it would be commerical perfect.
Instead, I somehow ended up eating baked beans off the blade of a knife, sitting around a campfire with a bunch of half-naked hippies, my legs itching from skinny dipping in a cold river in the middle of nowhere Vermont.
How did that happen?
That is a story for a different day; and only one that I will tell if there is more than one alcoholic drink in me. If I thought Seattle was America’s Mecca for potheads and marijuana enthusiasts, Washington has nothing on Vermont. NOTHING.
But anyhow; it reminded me that I read Cocaine Nights by JG Ballard almost four months ago, and I had still yet to do a review of it. Why? Because the novel is crazy, yo.
As I’ve said before, I try to go into a book with as little background information as possible. I like the book to impress me, to surprise me, without the context of someone having whispered into my ear, “Oh, Ballard? I heard he fucked Veronica in a Travellodge bathroom last winter and she was afraid she had herpes for like three weeks after that.” I hate having that type of… assumption, about a book. So I went into reading Cocaine Nights thinking it was something akin to The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test or something similar. But I was wrong. This book has very little to do with cocaine and instead focused on a society that feeds upon its own destruction, its own decay and elitism.
Taking place in the utopian Estrella de Mar, Charles Prentice is a writer whose job is to literally review vacation destinations. That’s right; this man gets paid to give paradise a 4 or 5 star rating. But this time it’s different. This time he is on a quest to save his brother; who is being held in jail for the murder of multiple people in a gruesome case of arson. The weird thing though is that Frank, while innocent, insists on pleading guilty. Despite everything Charles does to try to save his brother, Frank thwarts his attempts to free him. On top of that, everyone else at the resort also contrives to obfuscate the truth of what happened on that bloody and blistering night. A juicy mystery, no?
But the thing about mysteries is that they are like an episode of Star Trek; predictable with a conclusive “bad guy”, moral lesson, and feel good ending. Cocaine Nights is not like that. Cocaine Nights is dedicated to making the reader feel uncomfortable; because in a sense we are all sort of the bad guys of the book; people who are so wrapped up in having a good time, enjoying their idea of “paradise,” that their problems get shoved and excused away. For example; I was having a meltdown about not being able to go to Montreal. I mean a major, major meltdown. I had this decadent idea of what a weekend getaway should look like, and hoofing it in Vermont was just as unglamorous as it sounds. I just couldn’t let go of this idea and I was willing to throw a flipping tantrum when I couldn’t get it. Thus, it is during my writing of this post that I realize, on a much bigger scale, how easy it is to turn our noses at crime and corruption in order to hold on to our fragile ideas of paradise. Take this quote:
‘I’ve watched him at work, Paula. He genuinely wants to help everyone. He’s stumbled on this strange way of getting people to make the most of themselves. It’s touching to see such simple faith. He’s really some kind of saint.’
‘He’s a psychotic.’
‘Not fair. He gets carried away sometimes, but there’s no viciousness in the man’.
‘Pure psycho.’ She turned her back on the mirror and stared critically at me. ‘You can’t see it.’
In the end, I am so, so, so glad that I went to Vermont instead of Montreal. I met some really cool people, and I have some absolutely unforgettable memories. You can keep your resorts, your floofy lifestyles; marijuana nights are much preferred to cocaine ones.