THE LAST WAY OUT
A chronicle of paradise, profit and danger on the beach
By Sarah Barn
Illustrated. 341 pages. ecco. $27.99.
Publishing a book about beaches in the season of the “beach read” is a bold and meta move, as when Kramer coffee table book about coffee tables on “Seinfeld”.
The conventional wisdom is that readers want something light and daring for their summer vacations, something they don’t mind slathering on with Coppertone and leaving it at the rental house. Sarah Stodola’s “The Last Resort”, the title echoes Cleveland Amory’s Classic about high-society playgrounds, is definitely not that kind of book. It is indeed intended, in a well-intentioned, much researched and somewhat disseminated way, to make you deeply uncomfortable about visiting the beach.
Why are you actually going? For much of human history, Stodola reminds us, the coast was considered a very uncomfortable and dangerous place. In the 18th century, dubious “cures” of seawater – such as rinsing the eyes or repeated soaking – were promoted in the West. But beaches have long been tolerated rather than enjoyed, resorts there at a lower elevation parallel to the sort of sanatorium in Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain.” They also appear in literature and movies, probably more than mountains: Mann’s “Death in Venice” and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tender Is the Night” immediately flash before your eyes. “Splash.” “Jaws.”
The beach, which has been rebranded as an adult’s playground by Hollywood and real estate developers – it’s a great set, in art and life – nevertheless still has a vague sense of imminent danger. The sharks might be circling. The merciless sun burns. The big wave could strike. And even before Covid, the tourism industry was vulnerable to disease outbreaks and violence. “It’s one of the few industries,” writes Stodola, who requires its consumers “to come personally to the place of production.” And those consumers are fickle; their idea of ’paradise’, signified by palm trees and cocktail paper umbrellas, all too portable.
The biggest danger, Stodola says obscurely, and throws down many statistics, is the people themselves. They over-evolve, recklessly dump plastic and commit major violence against vulnerable marine ecosystems. The earth is warming; sea levels rise and established coasts reshape if they don’t disappear completely. And yet many travelers persist in just pouting about the immediate forecast. “There’s something about extreme weather that can be dismissed as a freak event,” Stodola writes, “and then there’s our current deluge of extreme weather that makes it harder to ignore the fact that the center isn’t holding, to use an expression of Didion, who borrowed it from Yeats.”
There is a lot of borrowing in ‘The Last Resort’ and the bibliography may quickly lead you to the more focused histories Stodola consulted, such as Mark Braude’s ‘Making Monte Carlo’. Her looks into race relations were reminiscent of Russ Rymer’s more substantive “American Beach: A Saga of Race, Wealth, and Memory.”
Stodola, whose previous book was “Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors,” and whose own writing life includes a certain amount of luxury travel (she founded and edited an online magazine called thrown), fruitfully digs up a 1980 essay by a geographer named RW Butler. In “The Concept of a Tourist Area Cycle Evolution: Implications for Management of Resources,” Butler identified half a dozen stages, Kübler-Ross-esque, in a resort’s life cycle, including stagnation, decline, and possibly rejuvenation. (“Tulum is the textbook Consolidation Stage today,” Stodola writes of the municipality in Mexico, which has become clogged with sargassum and hipsters.) She does a good back-and-forth analysis of why Bali, Indonesia, has become a major destination near Nias is having a hard time.
Still, you have to chuckle when a little girl among a group of village children asks for a photo of Stodola’s partner, Scott, and then one of the children holds up a middle finger as he takes the photo. This critic did not feel quite that level of hostility, but the disorienting number of places Stodola gets out of, the number of vegan dishes and drinks she claims she orders, some in swim bars—an old-fashioned one on the terrace of the Hotel du Cap Eden Roc in Antibes, France; Absolute and juice at the Naviti Resort in Fiji; “a pretty decent glass of wine in Cancun” (which she finds in Stagnation Stage) – makes you scratch your head at exactly what this book is proposing; it seems more like a last hurray than a last resort. “A nuanced understanding of the beach resort industry where it currently doesn’t exist,” is what Stodola is attempting, while acknowledging that the carbon offsets she’s bought for all her long-haul flights “isn’t enough to rationalize emissions.”
Mea Acapulco! (Where she enjoyed a melting frozen margarita at El Mirador.)
Either way, it’s time to retire the term beach reading. We can do it here now. ‘Read’ (like ‘invite’) is a better verb, and summer is precisely the season when readers have to ‘dig deep’, build castles in the air as well as sand.