Fiction: Of blood and tennis balls

COCAINE NIGHTS by J G Ballard Flamingo pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
J G Ballard has always been a bit trashy. His sentences sometimes lumber, refusing to steer around cliches; plots progress by lurches; protagonists wonder out loud about how events are improbably turning out. These lumps of genre obviousness come from the same seam of Science Fiction, twisting through his sediment of stories, as the sinister jewels of imagery that have made his reputation. And the mixture works: while Ballard dreams up dead aerodromes, people buy him in airports.

The narrator of this novel is a fatigued and middle-aged travel writer called Charles Prentice. On the first page he lands in Gibraltar: "This last outpost of the British Empire ... with its vague air of provincial England left out too long in the sun

Charles Prentice enters this over-watered landscape as a typical Ballard hero. He lives in a flat in the faded concrete Utopia of the Barbican; more of the time, he wanders between the departure lounges of many continents, a dulled world citizen planning a book about the architecture of brothels. With his memories of "Saudi" and Sussex University and an "attractive French geologist" he once profiled, Prentice seems a kind of Seventies playboy at first, but a visit to his brother's cell soon shocks him. Five people have been roasted to nothing in their house in a nearby retirement community, and Frank has been charged with their murder. He is pleading guilty.

Predictably, Prentice roars off down the dry road to the retirement complex to clear his brother's name. Behind the white clean walls of Estrella de Mar he finds the charred villa, a great deal of hostility and beneath that, a whiff of toxic decadence. Ballard appears initially to have written a lurid-jacketed clinker. Except that amid the shifty Spanish policemen and slutty expat wives, his usual powers are still there. Estrella de Mar quickly stops suggesting the set of Eldorado, and blurs instead into a dizzying playground of Ballard motifs: predatory hang-gliders, marble- smooth pools, serving machines popping away on empty tennis courts. The residents too have a familiar malevolence, organising Harold Pinter evenings and rapes for the camcorder with the same steely bourgeois thoroughness. Their closed vicious world could be Ballard's High Rise, flattened out and contoured to cover a rocky Andalucian peninsula.

At the centre of all this, Prentice clumsily discovers, is a blond tennis professional called Bobby Crawford. Estrella de Mar was close to comatose once, just British and German retirees surfing through days of television on a tide of tranquillisers; then Crawford arrived with his battered rackets, untiring charm, and a covered-up discharge from the army for extreme brutality. First, he tore up the brochure-perfect tranquillity - Ballard makes much of the Costa del Sol as a walled-in and camera-scanned European version of California's gated communities - through a covert campaign of petty terrorism: burglaries, graffiti, excrement in the swimming pools. Next Crawford introduced a new social economy of amphetamines and enforced debauchery. Soon nice middle-class mothers and daughters from Lancashire are offering massage and more on cards through the letter box.

Prentice is appalled, then drawn in by his discoveries. He forgets about Frank and, almost, the blackened house with its humidifier filled with petrol. Crawford recruits him to run a sports club in the next villa complex along the coast, which is snoozily ripe for the Estrella treatment. The tennis professional's visions of local transformation start to swell to Heart of Darkness proportions.

As with many Ballard conceits, or philosophical questions, Crawford's kingdom is slightly too kooky to provoke extended thought. In places the story reads like the work of a prolific, grandly established author, dotted with unedited repetitions like the mention of "fading petals" twice in two pages. But the slow slide towards a conclusion, with Prentice increasingly playing Marlow to Crawford's Kurtz, has enough trademark otherworldliness to keep the fan rushing through. Unmanned yachts burn at anchor. The five fire deaths are found to be a sacrifice that may be made again. Prentice edges from amoral towards immoral. And the last act, when it belatedly comes, uses a serving machine to unusual literary effect. Only Ballard could leave you wondering about blood and tennis balls.

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