The Dream at the End of the World

After World War II, Tangier, Morocco, offered a hedonist’s paradise where foreign artists, outcasts, and the idle rich could experiment with drugs and sexual freedom. The Americans Paul and Jane Bowles settled in its multinational community, attracted by the exotic, mystical, and dangerous elements of the local culture. Though he was first a composer, Bowles’s fiction drew writers like William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and others to North Africa.

Centered on the writers and lovers surrounding the Bowleses, this book covers a span of some twenty years, during which time the Tangier paradise was destroyed by political and emotional upheavals, ending with Jane’s hospitalization in early 1968. It is a sad but fascinating story, to which the book does not always do full justice. Though Green provides the historical background and vivid thumbnail sketches of all the participants, the result often seems too gossipy, too concerned with the itinerary of everyone’s constant coming and going.

In place of analysis, Green relies on interviews, memoirs, and novels, and this patchwork of different voices has little critical perspective and few convincing inner portraits. For instance, while repeatedly attesting the strong bond between Paul and Jane, both homosexual, Green depicts domestic torment and intrigue better than the underlying love.

Though rarely penetrating the surface of events, Green does provide a lively and detailed portrait of life in Tangier (as well as literary trends of the 1950’s). And the reader has the books of the writers themselves to guide him through the mysteries of a culture where fantasy and indulgence led as often to paranoia and mental breakdown as enlightenment.