This debut collection of short stories features an exotic location populated by believable people.
Paradise Beach is a fictional Mexican town on the Riviera Maya in Quintana Roo, somewhere between Cancún and Tulum. (Head owned a bar and hotel for a decade in Playa del Carmen.) But Paradise Beach is more than a Jimmy Buffett cliché. The atmosphere is real, and certainly the characters and events are inspired by the author’s own sojourn in Mexico—how close they are to the truth doesn’t matter. These are discrete vignettes (though characters sometimes reappear), each prefaced by a short reflection on what one is about to read. The first tale sets the scene with a biographical sketch of Poppa (who appears to be Head’s alter ego). He is the classic expatriate, the footloose drifter who finally landed on this largely unspoiled shore—“living the dream,” in that awful cliché. Some stories are humorous; some are poignant; some defy description. Poppa is sometimes a main actor in these tales but more often a bemused bystander, counselor, or father figure. He holds the book and, it occasionally seems, Paradise Beach together. In a setting such as this, it is hard to avoid clichés, so the work does have ugly American tourists usually staying at the expensive, antiseptic resorts that are becoming more and more common. They venture next door to Paradise Beach and gripe because things do not perfectly match what the travel agent promised. There are also “Margaritaville”-type reflections and paeans to life off the middle-class, money-grubbing grid. While such things come with this idyllic territory, Head keeps them mostly in check.
The author is at his best with tales that may be rooted in the local milieu but are really universal. People fall in love just as often in Albuquerque as in Paradise Beach. The difference—and it is a crucial one—is that Albuquerque is not Edenic, not a place one escapes to and then is forced to take stock of one’s life. This is the moral fulcrum of the finest of the stories, as when Poppa and Lynn Timmons fall in love or when Sadie and Roy break up. Perhaps the strangest tale (“The Old Man in the Sea”) stars not a human character but an old black grouper (seen through Poppa’s eyes). It is a very touching rumination on what this sea creature has seen and suffered in his—starting out as a her—30 years offshore. While the collection offers a bunch of familiar characters, the strongest ones are fully fleshed out, not cardboard cutouts. All stories must end, and the end comes for Paradise Beach in the form of a monster hurricane, Bad-Ass Bertha, that all but levels the little town. Poppa realizes that it would be pointless to try to rebuild his bar. In the end, he and his old friend Chaz sit on the beach in the dark. Chaz, using the allegory of a bullfight and the exhausted beast to discuss the concept of querencia, explains why people like himself and Poppa should move on. Indeed, there is, almost literally, no Paradise Beach anymore. And with that, readers will realize that Paradise Beach is no more real than Macondo or Prospero’s enchanted isle.
Truly wonderful and moving tales; the author is a writer to watch.