Fast on the heels of Paul Theroux's best-selling The Happy Isles of Oceania (p. 525) comes this equally polished but far more jaded view of Pacifica by English journalist Evans. While Theroux senses cosmic mysteries in the vast Pacific, Evans sees creepiness and rot. Perhaps his venture is doomed at the outset, inspired as it is by magazine photos of Peacekeeper missiles arcing over the Pacific. But travel appeals to him, albeit for reasons often left unsaid: ``The consolation of travel is the control it offers to cowards: you get up and leave; you abandon people....'' He boats into sleazy New Caledonia on the tail of a storm that blows ``with pentecostal force'' (an apt image, for Protestant missionaries swarm over these islands). There, he finds rumors of mermaids, and political strife that puts banana republics to shame. In dreary Fiji, with its villages of cinder block and tin, he meets caved-in Europeans and remarks that ``funerals are more enjoyable than weddings by a long way.'' On to New Hebrides, where ``cockroaches the size of moles swaggered across the floor'' and where he is jolted by the ``unblinking, solemn gravity of the natives'' and by kava, a local hallucinogen. With Western Samoa comes kerosene-poisoning and a noxious dose of heat, flies, and lassitude, but also beautiful women with fetching tattoos and the grave of his beloved Robert Louis Stevenson. Tonga, Gilbert Islands, Marshall Islands, and onwards--a roll call of sunburnt specks of dirt rife with poverty, promiscuity, religious fanaticism, and junk food. It hasn't always been this way, as Evans shows through frequent descriptions of earlier visits by Francis Drake, James Cook, Herman Melville, and the like; but, now, decay seems the order of the day. Maybe Evans should have stayed at home. We'd be the losers, though, for his mordant, Dantean travelogue offers a number of grotesque, cleverly crafted delights.