The Desperation Follies
Zihuatanejo, Mexico, a once remote fishing village north of Acapulco, has in
recent years become a destination for savvy gringos who want to avoid the crowds in the
usual tourist spots like Puerto Vallarta, Cancun, Cozumel and the all-inclusive resorts
sprouting up along Baja and the Yucatan. But like those better known places,
Zihuatanejo caters mainly to Americans who hesitate to leave the safety and comfort of
their hotels and rarefied social circles to wander the narrow, litter-strewn streets of the
barrio (think of crushed cans of Tecate and Modelo Especial in the gutters and packs of
mangy dogs scampering through the evil-smelling alleys) where portly men in ragged
clothes accost you at every turn to buy worthless trinkets. Little wooden lizards painted
in the festive colors of the tropics, chess pieces whittled from soapstone that snap in two
or disintegrate before you can capture your opponent’s queen, bottles of mescale and
absinthe, overpriced Cuban cigars, costume jewelry made of copper and glass. And we
must not forget the occasional dope peddler who, with the slightest shift of his eyes, tries
to sell you “the real McCoy, and, ah, senor, maybe a pipe for you? hand-carved, eh? do
you like the leering skull?” Yes, a sort of Mexican memento mori, a reminder to the
hapless tourist that your trip might end in total disaster. “Smoke up, for tomorrow we
die.” My trip did coincide after all with the Mexican Day of the Dead.
Zihuatanejo also differs from other resort towns in that it often attracts the so-
called Hollywood elite, a phrase touted about these days by conservative pundits who’ve
been led astray by an assortment of ever more grotesque ideologies, each requiring the
banishment of all celebrities to the darkest depths of the Inferno along with lunatics like
Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Hillary Clinton. In truth, the elite do roam the white,
sandy crescent of Playa La Ropa where they stop at the thatched-roof cantinas scattered
along the beach to drink frilly cocktails of crushed ice, crème de coconut, and dark rum in
tall glasses shaped like buxom bathing beauties. Movie mogul Robert Evans, the
producer of The Godfather and Chinatown, who has (so they say) a notorious appetite for
casting couch dilettantes, married his seventh bride at the palatial Villa Del Sol, a
labyrinthine complex with the Minotaur of money--and all of the destructive power that
goes with it--at the center. Dick Clark, a guest at the nuptials, was rumored to stroll the
grounds in white satin pajamas and inspect the mangroves growing in the artificial salt
During our first day in Zihuatanejo, my wife and I had lunch at Villa del Sol,
blissfully unaware of its reputation as a world-class boutique hotel, and sat only a few
feet from the crashing surf at a table with white linens and a floral arrangement. We
ordered gringo food: a Caesar salad, a bowl of gazpacho, a plate of sashimi. This set us
back $50. Not entirely out of reach for us plebeians but certainly enough dinero to
discourage us from ever eating there again. The waiter took in our non-descript
appearance (T-shirts from the usual chain retailers, sandals covered in sand, faces pale
from the non-existent Midwestern sun) and winced at our clumsy attempts at espanol.
Only a French waiter could work up such a contemptuous scowl. But then we weren’t
part of the Hollywood A list, not accustomed to treating the staff with the liberating
insouciance that comes from having great sums of money.
There are, of course, somewhat less well-connected, less “elite” if you will, stars
who visit Zihuatanejo, the struggling social climbers who keep losing their grip in the
perilously steep hierarchy of showbiz and who, if they wish to stay in the game, must
claw their way back up again, inch by inch, open casting call by open casting call, those
agentless men and women who aren’t yet important enough (or at least not recognizable
enough) to have their reputations smeared in the gossip columns although they badly
crave scandal and notoriety, perhaps even more so than a regular paycheck, judging by
their unwillingness to take smaller roles, walk-ons, cameos, gigs at dinner theaters.
I tell you all this as a kind of preface. You see, I recently attended a wedding with
just such a crowd of B list celebrities. To clarify: I was a longtime friend of the bride-to-
be, Kathlene; her fiancé Kevin was the struggling actor. Although he hadn’t managed to
land a regular role as a fiery lawyer on a daytime soap, he did get speaking parts in a few
national ads. From my couch in the wind-ravaged, bone-splitting cold of Cleveland,
Ohio I sometimes saw Kevin on TV selling cell phones, big bowls of steaming chili, gas
guzzling SUV’s, sweaters, cat food, bright red sweaters made of synthetic fibers. One
Sunday morning I opened the newspaper and saw his face on a Quaker State ad.
I always said he was perfectly suited to be a game show host, something like The
Match Game, a venue that would allow him to showcase his ribald humor and lecherous
grin, to kiss the hand or cheek or lips of the pretty female contestants, to perhaps
comment slyly about their breasts, roll his eyes at just the right moment to milk a laugh
from the audience. Of course that kind of humor is out these days. Producers will still
show you pretty women stuffed into sequined miniskirts, but you are strictly forbidden to
express your state of arousal. One of the purposes of bad TV (if purpose there be) is to
torment the male viewers by reminding them that deep down they’re all sex-starved
perverts and that the only socially acceptable way out of their predicament is through
castration or monogamy. Both amount to the same thing in the end. Perhaps this is why
so many old school game show hosts have retired or, since it is preferable to
A tough racket, show business. Scorsese and Bruckheimer weren’t calling, and I
often wondered how Kevin made ends meet in southern California. You had to be
wealthy just to live in the slums. Houses in Watts went for a quarter of a million dollars
these days, and yet some magical conveyor belt still churned out young actors a thousand
at a time. But financial success has little to do with one’s merits. Luck is the truly
important factor. As a writer, I know a little bit about this. You can only dedicate
yourself to your craft and hope for the best. In this regard Kevin and I have a few things
in common. Like him, I practice Lee Strasberg’s famous “method,” in an attempt to
inhabit the minds of different people, hoping to make the page come alive through
something more than mere ventriloquism, the usual gimmick of aping the cadences of
speech. Depth psychology is required. Only the greatest talents ever get it just right.
Kevin may not have found steady work as an actor but he did socialize with a
small crowd of Hollywood-types, young actors with a bit of good luck, or at least better
luck than the average dreamer who shows up on Sunset Boulevard with a suitcase in one
hand and a script in the other, and many of the guests at the wedding in Zihuatanejo
hailed from L.A. Most were performers on a well-known comedy show (which shall
remain nameless here) and some had even landed supporting roles in mainstream movies.
Maybe, I thought, I can hobnob with them, see if there are an opportunities for a diligent
scribe from Cleveland, but for the most part my efforts did not pay off. I was summarily
ignored, sometimes even rudely dismissed. The reason, I believe, was because while I
am a writer I am not a screenwriter. Thus I was lumped into a less prestigious category
of guests, the Midwesterners, each of us hailing from the backwaters of Chicago,
Cleveland, Cincinnati, clearly the oddballs at this affair with our khaki pants and button
down shirts and fondness for draft beer.
I must admit that I did feel a little self-conscious in front of the showbiz people,
but my discomfort was definitely preferable to reading stacks of composition papers
written (hastily, always at the last minute) by my undergraduates whose interest in
literature extends no further than the sports page and gossips columns in the Arts &
Leisure section of the Plain Dealer. Who knows, I thought, maybe the paparazzi will be
snapping photos outside the hotel and my students will spot their professor in the
background at the wedding reception, all five foot seven inches of him, dwarfed by the
impossibly long-legged, statuesque Amazon actresses in their pink, paper-thin, baby-doll
dresses, their hair cascading in front of their doe eyes and high cheekbones. What
marvelous adventures awaited me?
The ceremony and reception were not held at the blasé Villa del Sol (A list
celebrities only, please) but at the slightly scaled down Puerto Mio Hotel at the opposite
end of the bay, accessible by a rough road that went through Zihuatanejo’s car-choked
central district and then scaled the mountainous terrain and skirted a village of
windowless, tin-roofed shanties where children outfitted in dirty rags scrambled along
crumbling cinderblock walls and yanked dreamily at the clotheslines that seemed to hang
from every corner of every house and power line.
To most, us sheltered gringos, this kind of poverty was truly startling, but during
the reception I overheard one guest say, “Oh, yes, yes, they’re very poor here, but did you
notice how they all had satellite dishes?” Imagine the audacity of the poor and
downtrodden, throwing away what little money they had on television. Apparently for
most ordinary Mexicans poverty was preferable to getting involved in the booming drug
trade, but while most hadn’t reaped the rewards from the increasingly powerful cartels
operating throughout the country, some people, specifically tourists, did indeed benefit.
The temperatures that day were sweltering and by the end of the wedding
ceremony the guests were drenched in sweat. Nevertheless, tradition and decorum
prevailed, for a little while at least. After the pastor closed his Bible and the newlyweds
marched down the aisle, the guests were immediately seated for dinner, and before
dessert was served a few family members made the usual toasts; but when the music and
dancing started and the bright balloons dropped from the ceiling, the Hollywood celebs,
as if on cue, took over the show. One by one they went out to the parking lot where, I
thought, they were getting some fresh air until a friend leaned over and nudged me in the
“Booger sugar,” he whispered from the corner of his mouth, “Columbian
Where they’d obtained the stuff I do not know. Mexico is a full service drug
retailer, but whom do you trust and how can you be certain that you’re not buying a bag
of baking soda from some cop who, ever since he was a little boy, has dreamed of busting
a pampered American?
When they returned from their little walk outside, a group of actresses crowded
around the grand fountain in the dining room where with bulging eyes and grinding teeth
they discussed the best way to “stage their entrance.” They debated whether to splash
into the fountain as a group or to go in one at a time. “What would look better on
camera?” they asked even though no paparazzi were present. Sadly, the actresses had to
play a game of make believe, imagining that the man with the cheap Nikon wasn’t a
wedding photographer but a top notch photojournalist for Vogue working the red carpet
at the premier of a feature film. They worshipped the camera like idolaters before a
golden calf, and anytime another guest got near the photographer the Hollywood ladies
turned and hissed, their blue eyes, once puddles revealing the shallowest of souls,
becoming oceans of unfathomably deep loathing.
I don’t know what plan they finally settled on; I only saw the end product--a half
dozen young women knee deep in the fountain, their haute couture dresses clinging to
their size two frames and accentuating their ribcages and angular limbs and, dare I say,
camel toes. Underwear and bras were apparently optional. The laughing nymphs kicked
their legs and splashed water at the guests, at grandmothers and uncles and old maid
aunts who screeched in horror, shielding themselves as best they could with napkins and
tablecloths. More than a few people stormed out of the restaurant sputtering with rage
and indignation but many stayed to watch this obscene spectacle. How could they not?
“Wasn’t that great fun!” one of them shouted. “But now it’s time for…Act II!”
And like some twelve-legged creature from an old B-movie they emerged as one entity
from the fountain and flounced down a set of steps to an infinity pool overlooking the bay
where, after posing for the crowd of gawking and scandalized guests, held hands and
jumped into the water with cries of ecstasy as though being the center of attention was
better than sex or a phone call from Steven Spielberg. They paddled around the pool,
doing their best to imitate some Busby Berkeley showstopper, and then, softly at first but
gradually louder and louder, they began to chant for the bride and groom to join them.
Without the least hesitation Kevin and Kathlene, still glowing with matrimonial
bliss, galloped down the steps and took the plunge. They in turn chanted for the
groomsmen and bridesmaids and parents and siblings and friends to jump in as well.
Some of the guests, the older ones, the suburban ladies in formal attire, the gentlemen of
means and responsibility, quickly scattered like bugs under a magnifying glass, but a
handful of others, not wanting to be seen as teetotalers or maybe because they were just
plain drunk, walked down the steps (though not as gracefully as the actresses) and flung
themselves into the sacrificial waters. “Sing, Sing, Sing” blared from the speakers, and
suddenly the Mexican night resounded with the thunderous drumming of Gene Krupa and
the cacophonous, caterwauling chorus of the coked-up actresses and the screams of
tequila drunk guests splashing madly in the pool.
By now the entire restaurant was in total disarray. Guests trying to escape the
bedlam slipped on the floor and ended up on their backs. Maids threw down their mops
and shook their heads in wonder. Waiters no longer bothered serving the guests and
began to drink heavily. Slices of cake flew across the room as did a bouquet of flowers, a
high heel shoe, a pink skirt, the severed head of the fish served for dinner that night. A
man stood naked at the edge of the pool and demanded to know where his cigarettes had
As I tried to soak in this horror show an actress stood beside me and droned on
and on about life in L.A. “I was in a music video with George Michael. He was sooooo
nice. I was in a music video with Michael Jackson. He was sooooo nice. I was in a
movie with Lindsay Lohan. She was sooooo nice…”
I suppose it’s difficult to judge a party from the perspective of relative sobriety--I
had a few sangrias, a margarita, too much sugar in any case to get a real buzz on--but as
far as I could tell these showbiz people had no discernable talent. They couldn’t sing or
dance or tell jokes any better than the average person. They excelled only in being
completely uninhibited. They weren’t even particularly good buffoons. If they had some
kind of philosophy or metaphysics you might call them “quixotic” but the cult of the ego
cannot be considered a real philosophy, and the buffoonery I witnessed that night was
more obnoxious than meaningful.
I finished my drink and said, “Well, I’m ready to call it a night.” The people I
knew, those stiff Midwesterners, seemed to be in agreement and because we were unable
to wade our way through the pool to say goodbye to the bride and groom we ducked out
of the hotel, crowded into a cab and made our way back to the tranquility of our condo on
the other side of the bay.
For several months, there had been mounting civil unrest and violence in the city
of Oaxaca in the south of the country. The teachers union had gone on strike, demanding
better wages and a series of measures to help students from impoverished backgrounds.
In their efforts to bring down the current governor, whom they accused of corruption,
they staged marches, occupied public buildings, pelted police with stones, erected
barricades and slept in the square. They had even taken over several radio stations. The
city was under siege, and the police, in trying to dispel the protestors, had reportedly
killed three of them. On the night of the wedding, rumors began to circulate that an
American journalist had been shot and killed. What kinds of pictures had he taken?
What kinds of stories did he have to tell? Maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that the
wedding coincided with the Mexican Day of Dead celebrations when mourners beckoned
the deceased to visit them, luring their souls from the grave with mescal and mole and
mystical blue smoke from copal incense.
As we passed once again through the Mexican slums I looked out the window and
said, “Maybe the revolution has finally begun.”
We asked the cabdriver about the unrest but he knew no more about it than the
rest of us; he also implied that Americans had an irritating habit of meddling in matters
that did not concern them.
We made it back to the condo safe and sound, although I cannot say the same for
all of the guests. The trip ended badly for many. One of the actors from the comedy
show went repelling with an inexperienced guide and fell thirty feet to the jungle floor,
breaking his leg. An actress fainted one night, splitting open her forehead on the edge of
her bathroom sink. Another man sliced open his arm on a jagged pool tile during an after
hours party and had to be rushed to a hospital for stitches.
Well, you have to expect collateral damage at these kinds of things I suppose.
Even Jay Gatsby himself ended up floating face down in his own pool.
Two days later my wife and I were back on a plane heading home to Cleveland.
During the flight I immersed myself in the stories of Saul Bellow, perhaps in preparation
for the unrelenting gloom of the Midwest, but when we reached cruising altitude
somewhere over the state of Guerrero a flight attendant interrupted my reading to ask if
I’d like a set of headphones for the in-flight movie. “God, no,” I said. “No movies for
me, not for a long time.” But I was unable to focus for very long on “Zetland” and,
though I hated myself for doing it, I looked up and began watching the movie.
I am not a big believer in coincidences, in concepts as grandiose as fate or chance
or synchronicity, but I was at a loss for how to otherwise describe what I saw. A silly
romantic comedy for teens. A boy and girl fall in love and become rich and famous.
And then, I swear it’s true, an actress who attended the wedding appeared on screen. She
smiled and frowned and laughed, and even though I had no idea what she was smiling
and frowning and laughing about I watched her anyway, and it occurred to me that during
the entire trip in Zihuatanejo she’d remained in character. In fact, there seemed to
be no discernible differences between the person I saw on screen and the one I spoke to at
the wedding reception.
Finally I forced my eyes from the screen and when I looked back down at the
Kevin Keating's fiction and essays have recently appeared in a number of places,
page there was one final coincidence waiting for me. With something like the awe
mystics must feel when they are in the presence of the divine I read these words: “There
is probably no way for human beings to avoid playacting. As long as you know where
the soul is, there is no harm... It is when the soul can’t be located that the play of being
someone turns desperate.”
including Smokebox, Fringe Magazine, Megaera, Double Dare Press, Ascent
Aspirations, Exquisite Corpse, Tattoo Highway, and many others. You can see
much of his work by going to
He currently teaches English at Baldwin-Wallace College near Cleveland, Ohio.