A paradise that’s more of a paradox

Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to the Book Review, is the author of, most recently, "God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism."

At the outset of “The Road to Esmeralda,” Joy Nicholson acknowledges the writer Robert Stone as her role model and unwitting mentor. The comparison is apt -- both Stone and Nicholson share a taste for angst and adventure, and both are fascinated by the points of intersection between global politics and sexual politics. And Nicholson, again like Stone, is nothing less than a postmodern Graham Greene -- a storyteller capable of spinning a yarn that is at once a romance, a thriller and a morality tale.

Nicholson is the author of the bestselling “The Tribes of Palos Verdes,” heading into production as a movie. Her new novel follows Nick Sperry and Sarah Gustafsson, a thirtyish couple from Los Angeles, as they venture ever deeper into the Yucatan in search of a vacation that will take them out of reach of their fellow Americans as well as the foreigners who blame them for various aspects of U.S. foreign policy, including the approaching war in Iraq. They think they have found a safe refuge when they stumble on Gasthaus Esmeralda, a remote and exceedingly odd eco-resort operated by an equally odd fellow called Karl Von Tollman.

“Karlworld,” as Nick wryly dubs the place, “included sprightly canoe rides, horse husbandry, orchid-gazing, the crafting of herbal remedies for toe itch, eczema, nightmare.” And, as it turns out, Nick needs something for the nightmare that overtakes him as Sarah falls for the married Karl, still ruggedly handsome in his 60s and diabolically intent on humiliating Nick. “In the dark Karl might just be sexy, calling to mind an aging French commando,” writes Nicholson. “Muscles and sinew had taken the place of what should be, in a fair world, an old man’s flabby skin.”


Nicholson displays an impressive grasp of the inner workings of her various male characters. Nick, for example, is only 32 but already losing his hair and gaining a paunch. He cannot figure out why Sarah won’t marry him, and he regards each sexual encounter as a barometer of their relationship; indeed, it is an example of Nicholson’s sheer genius that she wrings new and unexpected meanings out of the art of the faked orgasm. Nick is literally haunted by bitter memories of his disapproving father, now dead but still afflicting him. And he aspires to write the “Great Vietnam Story” but is forced to make his living churning out celebrity profiles for an L.A.-based entertainment rag.

That’s why the getaway to Esmeralda, which is meant as an opportunity for him to do some real work on his novel, turns out to be such a disaster. Tortured by the imagined scoldings of his dead father and terrorized by the sexual rivalry with the mysterious hotelier, Nick is hopelessly blocked. “[H]e couldn’t forget how she’d said Karl was ‘amazing, eccentric, like Crusoe.’ Like a literary giant. That was to say, exactly unlike Nick.”

But the greatest intimacy between Sarah and Karl begins when the two of them start to exchange secrets. Plainly, Karl is a man with something to hide -- the jungle compound is surrounded by a high wall topped with broken glass and pocked with peepholes with upturned nails, and he carries a firearm wherever he goes. Sarah refuses to betray Karl’s confidences, which only adds to Nick’s sense that he is the one being betrayed: “I’m sorry, Nick. I promised,” she says. “But he might not be as crazy as he seems.”

Nothing in Esmeralda, in fact, is quite what it seems. The handyman who works at the Gasthaus Esmeralda, the cruel and corrupt police chief of the little town, the colorful denizens of the Coco Palms Bar -- all have ulterior motives and hidden agendas. Cocaine and gelignite, drug-running and the DEA are somehow involved, but so are resort development and land speculation. And could the little village be the site of a sleeper cell in service to “Osama bin what’s-his-name,” as Sarah puts it. “Traps in traps in traps” is how the author sums it up.

Curiously, Nicholson’s publisher describes her prose as “heartfelt and spare” on the jacket copy. Heartfelt, yes, but there is nothing spare about her style. She writes like a house on fire, and she conjures up the tortured inner lives of her characters as well as the exotic landscape and folkways of the Yucatan, all so rich and so strange, with lush virtuosity. A chance encounter with a scorpion, for example, is the occasion for an excursion into the scary but somehow also charming practices of sorcery by the local brujos.

“It was said by the locals that a scorpion’s poison could be counteracted with twelve bee stings,” muses Al Greenley, the handyman, a bisexual cruise-ship gigolo who washed up on Karl’s beach. “On the other hand, it was said that a scorpion’s sting might be a punishment, inflicted by a hired priest representing the Mayan small gods of petty vengeance. To curse one’s enemy in Esmeralda wasn’t particularly costly; in fact, smaller curses were available for the price of a few shot glasses of tequila. Even the smaller punishments, however -- nightmares, painful rashes, dog bites, hangnails -- would come in irritating threes, and would keep coming in threes until the gods got bored, or the priests were too drunk to care.”

But the passage becomes deeply ironic when Al is forced to confront the real perils stalking Karl and his long-suffering wife, Cordula: “In a perfect world Al would just slip out, slide on, hope for the best for them,” writes Nicholson. “In a perfect world, Al would not have to hear about bouquet-style killings, arms and legs cut at the stem, stuffed into the torso like a flower arrangement.” Not until the very end do we learn whether Al is their protector or betrayer.

“The Road to Esmeralda” begins as a comic novel and then turns into a sophisticated potboiler. The payoff is a spooky climax that Nicholson foreshadows in an exchange between Nick and Al: “Man, that was one of the weirder nights I’ve ever had,” says Nick after a near-death experience. “And I didn’t think Mexico could get any weirder.” To which Al replies: “It can always get weirder.” *