Monday, May 18, 2009

Ted Conover: Whiteout

Ted Conover went to Aspen to write a memoir. Does that make it a memoir or a travel book or... something else? Regardless, the story of Aspen in the late 1980s is a fascinating picture of decadence, ala Tom Wolfe and Bonfire of the Vanities, told from multiple sides of the coin. Conover starts out as a cabdriver in a town where everyone takes cabs- the workers who make Aspen fun, the tourists, and the ultra-rich celebrities who live in Aspen for 2 weeks a year- long enough to need to keep the pool heated year round in case they drop in with a houseful of guests. He learns about the semi-illicit drug trade and the 80 bars in town (there are 5 stoplights but 80 bars). He hears everyone's secrets because people tell cabdrivers this stuff, and then he's had enough. He wrangles a journalist gig at the local paper and moves up a little in status, enough to start hobnobbing with the middle of the upper class. He visits John Denver's new age talks and some of the more out there groups- he rolfs and ests and I don't even know what else. It's weird.

Slowly, Conover doesn't seem to think Aspen is so weird. He's troubled by avalanche and back country ski- deaths, but he is only slightly troubled to live in houses with 6 bedrooms. Aspen-as-paradise has gotten under his skin; has made him forget his Colorado upbringing- the kind of upbringing that resents Aspen and everything it stands for. He has to come to terms with his new values as multiple old friends start to look at him strangely.

This is an odd book, 20 years dated, now, but still a relevant portrait of the haves in a dense time of the have-nots. Conover is articulate and irreverent, and insightful, and it's easy to relate to his story, even if you've never been to Aspen (and have no plans to do so):

Of course, anyone living in one of the 99 percent of American small towns in decline during this period might not be inclined to sympathize. Most towns were dying a death of slow attrition as businesses moved out and young people failed to return. But in fact, Aspen's dislocation was not so different from the feelings sensed by people elsewhere as the last department store shut down, the last coffee shop became a 7-Eleven: This isn't still our town. It's not the place we knew. In Aspen you knew it because there was nowhere to buy underwear and socks. Finding a parking place became impossible. The old post office became an Esprit store, the Elks Lodge a Hard Rock Cafe, Crossroads Drug a Banana Republic.