by Michael Niewodowski
#97 “Cocaine Nights” by J.G. Ballard. (# 102 on The List).
Crime is alive and well in the Spanish beachside resort town Estrella del Mar, and so are the residents- most of them anyway. A quintuple arson murder shocks the transplant residents, despite their accustomedness to gambling, drug dealing, prostitution, robbery, and even rape. Spain’s sun-coast (Costa del Sol) is an early retirement Mecca for northern Europeans, especially the English. Along the Costa del Sol, most towns are virtually crime-free, governed and policed by the expatriates- seemingly having expelled the Spanish from their own coast. “Things are different in Estrella del Mar,” the characters often inform us. Even the victims of crime in the town act like they are “swallowing an unpleasant medicine for [their] own good” (p. 127). However, compared to the tranquilized, zombie-like residents of the rest of the Costa del Sol, the residents of Estrella del Mar are lively, athletic, cultured, and exciting. When Frank Prentice inexplicably confesses to the quintuple murder, his brother, Charles Prentice, goes to Estrella del Mar to investigate, entering a world he does not understand.
“Cocaine Nights” is a ‘page turner that will keep you guessing.’ It also asks important questions about the role of crime in society. Is crime a necessary part of a thriving society? If pain is often an impetus for positive change in an individual, is not crime an impetus for positive change in a society? “Name me a time when civic pride and the arts both flourished and there wasn’t extensive crime,” (p.261) referencing Shakespeare’s London and Medici’s Florence. It certainly works for the residents of Estrella del Mar; crime, cocaine, heroin, and LSD keep the residents very lively. Meanwhile on the rest of the coast, the same North European expatriates are dulled and dimmed by “socially acceptable” prescription medications and boredom in a completely safe condo compound; they watch satellite TV World Cup re-runs with the noise turned off. Wouldn’t a few designer drugs and some criminal mischief do them good?
The parallels with “Cocaine Nights” and my own life are interesting (well, at least to me they are). When I was 18 years old, the summer after I graduated high school, my parents gave me a graduation gift of spending a month in Alicante, Spain on the Costa del Sol. While I was there, a good friend of mine was robbed at knifepoint of her purse, watch, and jewelry by a gypsy. Although it wasn’t a life-changing experience, I still remember the excited fear I felt at hearing about the encounter, even twenty years later. The rest of us were much more vigilant after that.
Living on the suncoast of Florida, I have catered (literally) to rich, Northern transplants. I have found them to be much closer to Ballard’s zombie-like residents of the Costa del Sol than the residents of Estrella del Mar. “We’re building prisons all over the world and calling them luxury condos.” (p. 220). Despite living in ‘paradise’, and despite all their money, they usually seem bored or angry. However, upon visiting a place like Miami Beach, with it’s propensity for crime and drug use, I found a much different, much more lively type of transplant resident.
Maybe the greatest trouble in paradise is ennui.