Richard is a British backpacker in Thailand who discovers a secret beach where dozens of expats have created their own society, separate from the rest of the world. A man he knows as Mr. Duck gives him a map to the beach, which is hidden on an island in an aquatic wildlife preserve, before later committing suicide.
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Richard and two other travelers, Etienne and Francoise, swim to the island and find the secret beach. It is already populated by an international assortment of people like them, who are tired of the societies they came from and arrived here to escape it all. But the island already has a society of its own, as the supposedly carefree residents of the beach create a hierarchy of sorts, and the cliquish leadership gets under Richard's skin. He clashes with Sal, the de facto leader of the group, and her boyfriend, who goes by the nickname Bugs.
Additionally, the beach hippies have frightening encounters with the drug runners who grow marijuana on the highlands above the beach. This culminates when Richard goes back to mainland Thailand on a shopping trip and gives the island map to two German travelers that he meets there.
When the Germans arrive a few days later, they are captured by the drug cartel, who kill them. Richard tells Sal, who later asks him to kill Karl, another beach resident who had been causing problems. Richard resolves to leave with Etienne and Francoise, but finds that Karl has escaped with their boat.
The next day, the leader of the drug gang comes to the beach during a party and confronts Richard and the others, threatening to kill them all. The rest of the residents of the beach blame Richard for what has happened, and fighting breaks out. Richard is stabbed, but Etienne and Francoise, along with two others, Jed and Keaty, save him and attack Sal and Bugs with fishing spears. Richard and the other four escape on the raft that the dead Germans arrived on. In the end Richard is back home in Britain reflecting on what happened, hoping that Sal and Bugs died in the fight.
Best part of story, including ending:
It was a good idea for a novel: a collection of world-traveling expats making their own society away from the ills of the modern world. But all the characters are too obnoxious to take seriously, particularly since Richard describes everyone else as if they were all idiots.
Best scene in story:
Before swimming off to the island, Richard plays a game with Etienne and Francoise where they swim down to the bottom of the ocean and come back up. It's almost a throwaway moment, but it was a rare instance in this novel where the characters spend a small amount of time thinking about the ineffable parts of life, instead of just complaining about everyone and everything around them, or smoking pot.
Opinion about the main character:
Richard acts like everyone else is stupid. It's hard to say if this is the fault of the character or the author, since many of the other characters are truly stupid.