Ballard’s conceits are social experiments conducted within the safety of a book. They are what-ifs.
Cocaine Nights follows Charles Prentice as he arrives in Spain to visit his brother, Frank, a night-club manager who is jailed on charges of arson and multiple murder. To Charles’s horror, his brother has pleaded guilty, a plea believed by nobody who knows him, least of all the police detective assigned to the case.
Charles henceforth attempts to carry out his own investigations into the resort where the fire occurred. Beneath the smiles and helpfulness of the ex-pat British retirees lurks a hostility to both his questioning and presence.
Strange how the narrator barely makes reference to his relationship with his brother. He puts his life on hold, but for what? And in spite of a man pleading guilty. What’s he trying to save?
There’s a good sense of the narrator making up narratives in his head about the residents during his investigations. It’s just like that thing you do with neighbours whose lives you know nothing about. In this, Charles has a shifting understandings of the ongoing incidents; sometimes violent, always illegal, they are related to the fire … in some way. And his understandings are often at odds with the residents’ understandings, theirs being benign and innocent, while his are suspicious. There’s a sense that some truth is waiting to emerge from all these perspectives.
Yet Charles seems to be taken in by proceedings, a refreshing change from the all-knowing P.I. or cop. Later on, Charles gets involved in ’running’ a retirement complex. I put this in quotes because nothing happens there. This is what the book is really about: the emergence of gated communities, places where nobody takes risks. The addition of something untoward going on adds spice. The situation reverses so that Charles becomes a reassuring presence while the scepticisms are increasingly expressed through some of the other characters. His employer, a tennis coach who is transforming the quiet resorts into exciting ones, isn’t quite what he appears to be. As Charles witnesses and then becomes part of the orchestrated utopia, the more it is described, the more the fire deaths and Frank’s confession nag in the back of your mind. What’s the price, you begin to wonder, for the transformation?
Yet Ballard sows a counter-intuitive seed. I found myself unsure about whether the sinister goings on were any more sinister than a gated community without anything going on?
Cocaine Nights is unlikely to grace your local library, but it’s unmistakable reflective cover makes regularly appearances in the secondhand market. It’s a reminder of how the gated community raised worries in the 1990s about social divisions. What Ballard asked instead was whether a quiet life is worth living? It’s interesting, for example, to contrast his novel with the lightly amusing yet tediously comfortable Toujours Provence. A case of secondhand books returning you to an old question with a new one.
Excerpt from p.84:
‘DR HAMIL TON?’
Kneeling in front of me, her hair in a dishevelled mane around her torn blouse, was the young physician who had arrived at the funeral with Hennessy and Bobby Crawford. She seemed startled to see me, eyes in a slight divergent squint as she tried to take in all four walls of the room and my presence on the bed. She quickly recovered, setting her lips firmly across her teeth, glaring up at me like a cornered puma.
‘Doctor, I’m sorry…’ I reached out to help her. ‘I think I hurt you.’
‘Leave me alone. Just keep away from me and stop that heavy breathing. You’ll hyperventilate.’
She raised her hands to fend me off, then stood up and smoothed her skirt around her thighs. She winced over her bruised knees, and in a show of temper kicked the suitcase that had tripped her. ‘Bloody thing …’
‘Dr Hamilton . . . I thought you were -’
‘David Hennessy? Good God, how much time do you spend rolling about on a bed with him?’ She rubbed her flushed wrists, spitting on the skin. ‘For a clumsy man, you’re cerainly strong. Frank must have had his work cut out with you bumping around him.’
‘Paula, I didn’t realize who you were. All the lights were off.’