Books: A hack at the Nautico Club

Forty years on, JG Ballard is as thrillingly wired as ever. By Nicholas Wroe; Cocaine Nights by J.G.Ballard Flamingo, pounds 16.99
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The continued ability to keep coming up with new J.G. Ballard- isms is extraordinary. It is now 40 years since the publication of his first short stories yet he is still conjuring up the most dazzlingly original and unsettling images coupled to unfailingly depressing and plausible visions of the future. Cocaine Nights, his 24th fictional work, features a good showing of the old favourites in the form of swimming pools (drained and undrained), skin abrasions after rough-house sex and the minutiae of enthusiastic DIY pharmacology. But there are also some stunningly prescient new snapshots from the uniquely wired Ballard mindscape.

I was particularly taken with both a melted TV remote control and the remains of an old man, a young girl and her unborn child discovered in a Jacuzzi. But dominating Cocaine Nights is a single magnificent image which perfectly encapsulates the book's main thesis. An unmanned tennis machine sends down a fizzing supply of kicking, swerving and biting services onto a baking Spanish court, empty but for a broken wooden racket and a bloody corpse. It's all you really need to know. The future is leisure plus technology and it's not for the squeamish.

Cocaine Nights is set amongst the ex-pat Brits of Estrella De Mar on the Costa del Sol. Whereas neighbouring towns and complexes are full of London villains and tranquilized retirees, Estrella and its focal point, The Club Nautico, is buzzing with civic pride and artistic endeavour. There's an active and representative town council, the theatre group is mounting a season of Stoppard plays (Pinter next), the choral society is fully subscribed and the theatre club is advertising a Renoir retrospective.

Into this deracinated Sunday supplement world comes travel hack Charles Prentice musing, "perhaps this was what a leisure-dominated future would resemble? Nothing could ever happen in this effectless realm, where entropic drift calmed the surfaces of a thousand swimming pools".

At school Charles, who still smokes the occasional pipe, was only interested in "opium and brothels - pure Graham Greene", which is just as well, because he is there to sort out why his brother Frank, manager of The Club Nautico, is in jail for mass murder. He soon learns that this oasis of peace and civilisation, "Goldfinger's defensible space raised to an almost planetary intensity", is also where "drug-dealers haunted the bars and discos, prostitutes high-heeled the cobbled alleyways above the harbour, and the cameras of the porno-film makers probably turned in a score of bedrooms".

For, paradoxically, what has made Estrella into a haven fit for sushi- eating subscribers to the New York Review of Books, is the calculated introduction of vice and crime. Dr Sanger, a spooky psychiatrist, tells Charles that, "in the age of leisure the only thing that can keep people interested in living is crime and transgressive behaviour", and Bobby Crawford, charismatic tennis pro, was the man to provide it. He discovered that petty crime brought in more tennis lessons. People became fired up by a determination not to let the bad guys win. Having contracted out law and order to a private security firm helped of course, but soon one thing led to another and the odd car theft, dirty video or bag of white powder speed-boated over from Morocco, resulted in the incineration of five people (during, of all things, a celebration of The Queen's Official Birthday) and Frank Prentice languishing in a Spanish jail.

Along with the early intimation that we are in a kind of time-share Greene- land (reinforced with the description of Estrella de Mar, as "as generously wooded and landscaped as Cap d'Antibes", and the theological to-ing and fro-ing over the freedom to commit evil in the service of good) there are also echoes of other Thirties writers in Cocaine Nights. Charles is a something of a dissolute Miss Marple conducting his investigations in defiance of the local police in a "halcyon county-town England of the mythical 1930's, brought back to life and moved south into the sun". There's also more than a whiff of Priestley in the communal responsibility, guilt and pride in the activities of the town that effectively mires Charles in his efforts to get at the truth of the allegations made against his brother.

Cocaine Nights is built on a terrific premise and is pitted with stylish detail, but one senses that Ballard, having come up with the idea of the tennis machine, found it something of a chore to spin out this just-about- perfect image to something saleable in hardback at pounds 16.99. But that said, the overwhelming Ballard-ness of it will ensure fans like it and any potential biographers will love it.