Whiteout: Lost in Aspen
By the time I found out that the ’80s were a decade of madcap excess in which we were all supposed to be recklessly pursuing money and dissolute pleasure, it was 1989 and too late. But there’s still one dissolute pleasure left for those of us who never rode in a stretch limo, never peddled junk bonds, never were asked to do lunch in L.A., never stepped into a hot club in Manhattan or a hot tub in Aspen: We can read about it in a book. This is our own humble excess. After all, we have better things to do than read a book about the high times and misdemeanors of the ’80s, don’t we? Magazine articles, maybe, but a whole book?
In any case, Whiteout: Lost in Aspen is a whole book about Aspen in the ’80s, but as if to assuage our guilt, the author has cleverly disguised it as a series of sporadically diverting, badly written magazine articles. Having published first-person accounts of hoboes and illegal aliens in his first two books (Rolling Nowhere and Coyote), Ted Conover, who grew up in Denver, went to Aspen and worked as a cabdriver and as a reporter for the local paper. During his time there he let the material for this book slowly settle on him like a fresh fall of cocaine as he went from trendy restaurant to party to health club to New Age seminar. Early on, after revealing the not very interesting secrets of cabdriving in Aspen, Conover lists some of the celebrities who graced the resort town during the ’80s: Don Johnson, Don Henley, Barbara Walters, Cher, Donald Trump…in other words, some of the most outstandingly shallow and pain-inducing people in the United States. I had expected Whiteout to consist of deadpan satirical observations of these jet-set flotsam and jetsam. But Conover isn’t an astringent enough writer to make a good satirical sow’s ear out of Aspen’s silk purse. He tends to be in earnest.
He does give us distant glimpses of Hunter Thompson in full pursuit of cirrhosis of the liver and of Ted Kennedy ”seated at the bar, a blonde on his lap.” But there are no razor-sharp anecdotes or portraits here, and when Conover does get near a celebrity, he goes weak at the knees. Having crashed a tawdry party given by Don Johnson, he is rendered tongue-tied by the proximity of Goldie Hawn; the opportunity to wear a ski mask left behind by Jack Nicholson sends him into euphoria. Noticing the tendency of John Denver and his disciples to wallow in vague utopian feelings, Conover is provoked to calling the singer a ”New Age Oral Roberts,” but then he backs into this curious tribute: ”But there was a moment when for millions of people his songs did not cloy but affirmed, when his positive outlook evoked the spiritual attainments of a Jonathan Livingston Seagull.”
Amid all the questionable prose and spiritual blather, however, the book has its moments. Conover’s accounts of the death of the physicist Heinz Pagels in a climbing accident and the attempts to recover the body of a skier lost in an avalanche are especially moving. Then there is the story of Aspen’s transformation from the faded mining town revived by Walter Paepcke, the Chicago industrialist, in 1949 to the Aspen of the Aspen Institute, with its classical ideal of blending leisure and learning, to the resort town of the ’80s frequented by Donald Trump and other sordid tycoons and developers. That story — however sketchily delivered by Conover — becomes a parable of the rake’s progress of American culture in the 20th century. C