by Roland Denning
Review by J.S. Colley
Roland Denning’s social and political satire, The Beach Beneath the Pavement, has a Felliniesque quality about it ― an air of the fantastical and surreal ― all the while tackling some very cerebral and serious topics.
The story is about Bernard Hawks, a cynical journalist who, if not downright nostalgic for, is at least a bit disillusioned over the loss of the social revolution and counterculture movement of the 60s and 70s. He vents his cynicism and frustrations through his newspaper column published in The Indicator. But when a bomb goes off exactly where he fantasizes about planting one, Bernard gets thrown into ― what feels like ― a Jungian dream.
At a conference sponsored by the Tranquility Foundation, Bernard meets Animal, an attractive female terrorist who thinks he’s a hero. When Dillwyn (Bernard’s “paranoid nut” neighbor) warns him about Animal, suggesting she might be part of a neo-luddite organization called The Primitive Front, Bernard reminds Dillwyn that the Front is fictitious. “But being fictitious is not the same as not existing, is it?” Dillwyn states. And this marks the first introduction into the mind-boggling concepts that permeate the novel ― from Post-Credibility to Cred Havens (a point in the rhetoric where truth and fiction are expertly combined so that even those who mistrust everything start to believe) to the philosophy of the enigmatic Tranquility Foundation whose tendrils reach far and wide.
Of course the police eventually come calling to investigate the coincidence of a bomb going off exactly where Bernard had fantasized in his column about placing one. While trying to prove his innocence, Bernard is pulled by unseen forces and his underlying desire for the incredibly attractive Animal into an anarchist underground movement, the pervasive arms of the Tranquility Foundation and the machinations of a theatre troupe called The Human Company.
One of the more interesting characters in the novel is the enigmatic and mysterious JJ ― the man who turned baseball caps around. But all Denning’s characters are strong and well defined. Another reviewer called them “cartoonish.” I would describe them to be more like caricatures (and I mean this in a very good way) ― with exaggerated personalities rather than physical features. All this adds to the Felliniesque quality of the novel. The exaggerated characters make for some very funny scenes. For all of its deep, philosophical undertones this book also has loads of humor.
One of the funnier scenes in the novel is when Bernard takes his beloved computer, a rare version of a Cydrax, to a repair shop. This eventually leads to a scene that will make anyone who has ever wanted to throw his/her computer against a wall break out in a wide grin.
After I finished reading the novel, I wondered if Denning chose a title that best represented the book. It didn’t seem to fit. The title conjured up an entirely different image in my mind than what the novel was actually about. However, in the novel, Denning provides one small reference to a French slogan: Sous les pavés la plage! So, of course, I googled it. I found the title has a connection to the May 1968 revolution that took place in France. This fits perfectly with the themes in the novel but I still wonder if most readers will miss the connection.
There are many interpretations of the French slogan from which Denning derived his title. One being that underneath the façade of man-made bricks lies the truth, or reality. That being said, while I think I know what Denning is trying to convey in his novel, I’m still not really sure. Maybe it’s to show the futility of caring about anything? “Only mad or dangerous people believe in anything these days: vegans, football fans, suicide bombers…” Or that we’re all being controlled like puppets and any attempt to break free is futile? The novel gives no remedy, no answers to the problem. Ironically, there was a reference in the novel to the all-pervasive saying from the 60s: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.
But maybe that’s Denning’s point ― maybe there is no real solution.
No matter. I found the writing excellent, the characters delightful and the ideas worth pondering. The Beach Beneath the Pavement is thoughtfully written, smartly plotted, clever and intelligent, humorous, and an all-together good read.