Generation X meets Lord of the Flies in this ripping good adventure yarn, the British author's first novel. His literary alter ego, a cynical twentysomething named Richard, has barely settled into a budget guest house in Bangkok when a fellow traveler slashes his wrists and bequeaths to him a map to "the Beach"—a lagoon on an uncharted island in the Gulf of Thailand where a group of assorted Westerners have supposedly found a tropical Utopia. Richard makes the perilous crossing and finds a happy, bare-foot bunch who spend their days spearfishing, gardening, making out and toking up (the commune peacefully coexists with the drug lords who tend to the marijuana fields nearby).
Richard proves himself useful and is welcomed into the fold—but he soon finds these jungle pilgrims aren't as enlightened as they think. Western culture dogs them (their cultural references are Nintendo and The Waltons), as do personality clashes and petty rivalries—not to mention the constant paranoia that their secret will be blown and hordes will invade any day. Misfortune indeed arrives, in the form of food poisoning and shark attacks; the rifts become chasms, and the drug-stoked commune descends into madness. Garland shows a precociously sure hand in this taut, exotic thriller. For a young author, he knows too well the peril of finding paradise on earth. (Riverhead, $24)