“Most totally excellent, dude. Like utterly outrageous, compadre.”
The speaker of this quotation admits, when pressed, that he and his companion are actually Harvard graduates, seeking adventure in Thailand in the early 1990s. Like Richard, the main character and speaker of this novel, they are looking for Eden, someplace the rest of the world has not discovered, where they can live apart from corrupt “civilization” and enjoy the more “meaningful” aspects of a simple life, independent of the rest of the world. Richard, while staying in a Bangkok guest house, befriends two French travelers, Etienne and Francoise, and when “Daffy Duck,” an older resident, bequeaths him a map to Paradise, just before committing suicide, the three decide to find it. As a precaution, Richard draws a copy of the map and leaves it for the two Harvard boys, in case he does not return.
Surviving a long sea swim, conquering the cliffs on an uncharted island, and, more importantly, recognizing a dope farm and avoiding the bloodthirsty gunmen who patrol it, the three eventually make their way onto “The Beach,” the utopian society Daffy has told Richard about, and in which he was a founding member. As they settle in and learn the ropes, the three newcomers experience the mystical, sometimes drug-induced peacefulness they’ve always dreamed of.
As in Lord of the Flies and other utopian dreams, the magic lasts only until the first big crisis, and on the beach, several crises occur simultaneously. The community begins to unravel into division, hostility, and eventually, chaos. Several characters, including Richard, start to hallucinate and lose touch with reality, with Richard associating life on the beach with the warfare he faced in Vietnam. Daffy Duck, the long-dead “friend” who gave him his map, becomes a major character in Richard’s daily life.
Garland’s ability to conjure images and move the action along makes this an intense and exciting novel. His dialogue is hip, the drug culture is depicted casually and realistically, and the naivete of the free-wheeling characters is plausible, making their conflicts inevitable and understandable. As Richard deteriorates emotionally, the reader empathizes with him while also seeing his weaknesses and self-absorption. The utopian subject and its inevitable conclusion are not new, but Garland gives them a fresh treatment here, creating a dramatic novel which updates the genre for a new generation.
Notes: The author’s photo appears on http://www.daylife.com
The Thailand beach is here: http://www.southernthailand-all.com