WHAT does it mean to live in a town where a small, wood-frame home on a fraction of an acre can cost a million dollars and where the person sitting across from you at lunch might be an Arab sheik, Don Johnson, Barbara Walters, or John Denver?
In his first two books, "Rolling Nowhere" and "Coyotes," Ted Conover explored the lives of railroad hoboes and illegal aliens by living with them. In "Whiteout: Lost in Aspen," the author once again joins a community, this time one of the world's most upper-crust societies, first as a cab driver and later as a reporter for the Aspen Times newspaper.
Peering up from the lower end of the economic food chain provides Conover with a useful vantage point from which to reconnoiter and report on the warped motivations and strange emptiness that lie beneath the lifestyles of the rich and famous.
"From the beginning, I had some ill intent," he writes in a short mea culpa early in the book. "To be skeptical about Aspen, it seemed to me, was to take a position against hype and elitism. It was to endorse traditional values...."
Approaching his subject rather like a slightly jaded anthropologist has yielded Conover some useful insights. One is the subtly seductive quality of Aspen - and its tendency to promote a sort of easy liberalism with no acid test of a person's convictions. He describes a place with few of the rough edges associated with everyday life - where a person is only as hot as his ski outfit and "New Age" groups prosper by urging wealthy patrons to "feel good" about themselves.
"Aspen, with its low-density living, pristine surroundings, and high standard of living, was an easy place to feel one's better self emerge. You didn't get cut off in traffic too often in Aspen. Street people didn't approach you for change at outdoor cafes."
Yet, he writes: "The way acquaintances of mine in Aspen talked down about life in the city, life in Denver, life among the poor or handicapped or even the unattractive, one could even suppose they thought they were better people for living in a better place."
Conover conveys anecdotes such as crashing Don Johnson's birthday party, meeting rock drummer Mick Fleetwood, and a close encounter with Jack Nicholson in an engaging and occasionally profane style. He even waxes philosophical, though the book is hardly heavy reading. But neither is it People magazine.
Indeed, there seems ample reason to discuss just why these folks like Aspen so much. Does it mostly have to do with going to each others parties? Or is this shared narcissism just harmless silliness?
Answers emerge after Conover has experienced a full immersion into Aspen culture. Simultaneously attracted and repelled, he learns that the "Aspen Idea" amounts mostly to living the good life, or, at least, the good lifestyle.
Having housesat in multimillion-dollar homes too long, Conover discovers he is more or less hooked on hot tubs and carefree living. By now a sort of Aspen insider sans wealth, he begins to ask a dangerous question: "Why shouldn't someone [himself for example] with the chance to do it explore the good life?"
Inevitably, it seems, Conover is too introspective, his middle-class values too deeply embedded, to remain in Aspen.
"I noticed some changes in my attitudes. I was tiring, for example, of joie de vivre, of the stylized, commercial fun of a resort town. All of Aspen's skiing, night life, and celebration seemed tantamount, some days, to the commercial rejection of sorrow.... Aspen tried to institutionalize the idea of being upbeat, but after a while it just didn't ring true."
Leaving Aspen more than a year later than planned, Conover returned to New York City.
"I was missing a sense of the ordinary, of junk cars and old people and vacant lots and fat guys with no style," he observes. "There was a pressure to always look good, and it could be tiring."