Photograph by Eric Cabanis / Getty.

Six Smarter—But Not Quite Guilt-Free—Beach Reads

Beat the dull conspiracy that is the “beach read” with these smarter entries in the sordid, pulpy, guilty-pleasure genre.

by Philippa Snow
Jul 26 2017, 3:15pm

Photograph by Eric Cabanis / Getty.

Much like the favorite joke of modern feminism that to get a good "beach body" is to lie, quite simply, prostrate on the beach, I'm of the mind that "beach reads" are a dull conspiracy by airport bookshops—there are no good reasons to believe that romance books or murder mysteries pair with downtime better than, say, literally any other, better book, unless I've overlooked some crucial study that says plot twists are conducive to a tan.

Still, certain qualities make better books for travel. Good beach reads—no scare quotes—have both the lightness and the easiness of gossip, and some of gossip's natural cruelty. They should feel like bad hotel bar cocktails—an indulgence, with a guilty aspect—but not register as inhumane. (The inhumane books are, if anything, for reading on the homebound plane, when life looks bleakest, and joy feels unwarranted). They should be absorbing but not "unputdownable," if only because "unputdownable," a compound word I loathe, means far too often "cheap, manipulative," and is just as awful as when people say a book is "twisty." Just one twist, done well enough, should do.

These six books have either one twist or no twist at all; they all reveal at least five sordid things; and none of them have truly happy endings. All contain one or more criminal offenses. None have any true romance. Above all, they're good fun: half-dumb beach reads for smart (or at least literate) people. I could never stand a straight-up thriller, anyway.

I Am Not Ashamed by Barbara Payton (1963) In the sixties, having been the good and then the no-good time had by approximately all of Hollywood, the actress Barbara Payton wrote (or had ghostwritten) a confessional memoir, I Am Not Ashamed. She truly wasn't. "I went out with every big male star in town," she opens, starting with the zenith and then tapering off within a hundred words to the nadir: "Today I live in a rat-infested apartment with not a bean to my name and I drink too much Rose wine. I don't like what the scale tells me. The little money I do accumulate to pay the rent comes from old residuals, poetry and favors to men…. Does it all sound depressing to you? Queasy? Well, I'm not ashamed."

The helter-skelter leads, in other words, down to a knife pit. Maybe because of the vice-girl voice of its author, or maybe because of its male ghostwriter, I Am Not Ashamed is in a hard-boiled, pulpy mode, which means that Barbara calls herself "the nuts and boiling hot" with a near-straight face. In last year's gorgeous bumblebee-hued edition from the New York indie imprint Spurl, "pussy-wussy" comes not 20 pages in. "I like the Negro race" is printed, questionably, on page 67. For a stardom-voyeur, it's as thrilling and elicit as US Weekly. It's as incorrect, politically, as Miley Cyrus circa 2015. It's as naked as—well, Miley Cyrus circa 2015, too.

"I had a body when I was a young kid that raised temperatures wherever I went," Barbara recalls. "Today I have three long knife wounds on my solid frame." The wounds were from a drunken fight: "I did something," she fumbles, "to get someone mad. It isn't very clear to me." One thinks of Edie Sedgwick burning down her bed, or Britney and her shaved head; or, still more contemporaneously, of Lindsay Lohan last year, cutting off her fingertip in a speedboat accident. "This is the result of me trying to anchor the boat by myself," Lindsay confessed on Instagram, along with a picture of the injury. She did not add, though it would not have been that shocking if she had: "It isn't very clear to me."

The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer by Jennifer Lynch (1990) The diaries of teenage girls are twinned with airport thrillers by two things: the first is their inherent, clumsy love of the dramatic, and the second is their natural tendency towards puzzling out the evil that men do. This mocked-up journal by Twin Peaks' lost girl and prom queen Laura Palmer's no exception, even if the evil in this instance might be somewhat supernatural, and the topic of paternal incest—Laura's father Leland, while apparently possessed, is both her killer and her rapist—might be black as, let's say, midnight on a moonless night. "Sometimes I think life would be so much easier if we didn't have to think about being boys or girls or men or women or old or young, fat or thin," writes Palmer, in this epistolary imagining of her abuse, her innocence destroyed, her cocaine habit and her death. "If we could all just be certain we were the same. We might be bored, but the danger of life and of living would be gone."

A tie-in authored by the auteur's daughter, Jennifer, the book was meant to be a stopgap between seasons. David claims that he has never read it, which is fairly unsupportive, but is also understandable considering that this feels a lot like something written by a girl, for girls. Like Payton's memoir, Palmer's is the story of a blonde in peril. Like the recent beach read sans pareil Gone Girl, it explores female duality, deception, female immorality, and the deep confusion of betrayal: sexual, familial, and otherwise. It all-too-ably demonstrates the fact that nobody knows anybody else too well. It heightens both the mundane and the freaky, the nostalgic and the necessarily repressed, in youth and being young.

Recommending Palmer's story as a "summer read" would feel more callous if it were not for the fact Twin Peaks is back on television. Besides which, everybody reads pulp novels on the beach, and real pulp novels—classic ones, with dames and guns and private dicks—are just as filled with mystery and dead babes. The book's especially appropriate if you are holidaying in your hometown, maybe at the very blurred and balmy edge of early summer, and you grew up in the 'burbs.

The Lover by Marguerite Duras (1985) Speaking of decisions thought less damaging while under the narcotic influence of adolescence: Marguerite Duras's The Lover is the story of a teenage expat girl who reinvents herself by dressing in a man's fedora and a pair of gold shoes, after which she meets a Chinese millionaire twelve years her senior and begins a passionate, erotic, statutory love affair with him. It is what people might describe these days as "problematic." It is also fairly tragic. Duras called the novel autobiographical; she also said the story of her life "did not exist," which meant The Lover was, in fact, just "shit…an airport novel."

Perfect for our purposes, it's barely long enough to last a flight. The Lover is not flawless, necessarily, but it does breathe—it shudders like a living thing. I read the book in one train-journey's span, which ought to tell you a) how slim it is, and b) how effortless and readable it is. There some books—airy, slim and cool, and guilty-sexy—that might be distinguished as "quicksilver" novels, meaning that if they are not exactly shifting, they're somehow mercurial. They are as fast as well-developed, curious teenage girls, as fast as early boyfriends' mopeds; as fast as time spent doing nothing much. The Lover is the quicksilver-iest hit, and all quicksilver novels make ideal beach reading. They allow you to forget your laziness, your heat-struck immobility.

Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis (1998) Apparently Bret Easton Ellis once considered suing (or attempted unsuccessfully to sue—Bret is evasive, famously, and just as famous for his braggadocio) Ben Stiller. This was over Glamorama, possibly the author's best, most evil novel. Google "Glamorama + Zoolander controversy" sometime, and you'll see why he was so enraged: though even if the legal drama is invented, it goes some way towards explaining why a book about the fashion industry and terrorism, one that balances the line "a wire inserted into a wound on his stomach, attaching itself to his liver, lashing it with electricity" with recurrent phrases like "nice butt," might actually be worth reading.

Glamorama is a dated but extremely funny satire, and a complicated novel with a simple, simply hip conceit: what if fashion models were recruited to be terrorists? Hence the maybe-apocryphal lawsuit. Victor Ward, the book's main character— a model, idiot, just like Derek—is a beautiful and classic moron. Like most Ellis men, he's sexually fluid; he is also noisily, un-chicly rich. Names are dropped like lead weights: Laura Dern, Stella Tennant, Donna Tartt, Yohji Yamamoto, Chloe Sevigny. Very 90s. Very PoMo. Everyone calls everyone else "baby," which is also dumb and horrifying, senseless in its violence—and très 90s.

Zoolander did not have this much gore, nor was it as much of an a la mode derangement as Bret Easton Ellis's interpretation of the same themes, which at some point shucks off the constraints of logic, reasonable structure, and all common sense to run buck-wild. It is the thinking man or woman's Zoolander: though as in Zoolander, nobody featured in it—supermodel, man, or woman—really thinks.

The Studio by John Gregory Dunne (1968) Josh Greenfeld was a good friend of the Didion-Dunnes; he was also a writer, meaning he was powerless to keep himself from telling a story. "Joan and John were star fuckers," he blabbed to Vanity Fair. "They wouldn't miss a party. They could do four in a night—come, see what had to be seen, go." For a year in 1967, Dunne somehow convinced the studio Twentieth Century Fox to let him come, see what he could, and then go write a tell-all book about it.

That book is The Studio, and obviously, everyone involved looks bad or mad—including, sometimes, Dunne. Writing on the feasibility of Planet of the Apes, he makes a good case that it did not sound, in 1967, like an un-insane idea to make a film where "all the stars" (aside from Charlton Heston) "played apes" who "reversed their roles" with human men. It does not sound fantastic to a modern reader, either, when a film producer says about a starlet from a surf film, in which she is raped by bikers, that he tries to "keep her wet." "Wet," he gushes, "she's a star!" He gives no further explanation, but then why would any big-shot working in the movies be required to, back then or now? There is a steady stream of new girls waiting in the wings to be kept wet—to smile when they are told, like Jaqueline Bisset is in one vignette, that their bikini bottoms are too loose.

Hollywood, says Dunne, is "a mixture of greed, hypocrisy, shrewd calculation, mad hoopla and boundless optimism." Knowing what we do about the Didion-Dunnes as writers and as screenwriters, this is more or less the same as saying that they loved it. There's a little fondness, always, in this book, despite its most absurd lines sounding like invented jabs at mainstream cinema's expense ("six months were devoted to teaching Chee-Chee the Chimpanzee how to cook bacon and eggs"; "'you take out the semen, you don't have a script,' Bottomly said"; "'you got a little problem about the Lobster Man, you come see Irwin,'" et cetera, et cetera). "[Dunne's] reputation has grown more slowly than Didion's but appears to be equal now," the New York Times reported in 1987. They did not forsee our modern Didionmania — who did(ion)? Repay Dunne by choosing this instead of Play It As It Lays.

Sex and Rage by Eve Babitz 1979 Fittingly for somebody who fucked Jim Morrison and gave him several of his best ideas, the primary, pithy and perpetual subject and fixation of Eve Babitz's career is L.A. women. As in the Bible, Eve came first, in her debut Eve's Hollywood in 1974; then after this in 1979, came Sex and Rage—a "novel" rather than a memoir, though we have to take Eve at her word on this—in which we're introduced to Jacaranda, "tan, with streaky blond hair, and tar on the bottom of her feet."

Counterpoint has just republished Sex and Rage, which seems a wise move as the story still feels modern. Women still love parties and good weather, and they still have breakdowns. Jacaranda's name is said, we are reminded, "'Jack-ah-ran-dah,' as in jack-o'-lan-tern, the same rhythm…the name of a Central American flowering tree that grows in Los Angeles." The author makes no secret of the fact that California, and L.A. specifically, is where she also grew and flowered: she and Jack-ah-ran-dah, said like jack-o'-lantern, are the same hot, curious, beachy girl, save for the latter's champion skill at surfing.

Sex and Rage is most interesting for its early and astute portrayal of a horribly familiar, hopefully transformative late-twenties crisis. "That night," Babitz writes of one particularly sordid evening, "Jacaranda had become officially 'Impossible.' She had turned twenty-eight." The good news is that Jacaranda subsequently gets a literary agent, and the bad news is she drinks too much. Falling for a vicious bitch named Max, a gay or maybe sexless socialite, Eve/Jacaranda is subsumed into a crowd of shallow drunks, moving through scenes as gorgeous and then, later, just as goring, as the shark-infested Californian surf.

Far more than in her first, most self-mythologizing book, the author finds the ugliness in L.A. and in L.A.-style bohemia. It is…relatable. Sex and Rage's secondary title is "Advice For Young Ladies Eager For A Good Time," which might be reasonably added to at least half of the books I've recommended here. Myadvice would be to stay a reader, and to never run the risk of writing as a job—there is, it pains me to inform you, no leeway for taking holiday.

Bret Easton Ellis
Twin Peaks
Joan Didion
Marguerite Duras
beach reads
eve babitz
vacation books
john gregory dunne