Monday, January 12, 2009

Lifestyles of the Rich and Shameless?

Given the name and uber wealthy playground about which Madness Under the Royal Palms
was written, I was expecting an oblique assault on an elitist and secretive sliver of society suspected of profligate spending, narcissism and caste systems.

Instead, I found that the book is more of an amusing anthropological study that offered layers of depth and insight into individuals, relationships and social groups. The result is a humorous parable with some heavy moral lessons.

Best selling author Laurence Leamer used multiple sources to build a penetrating character analysis of some of the more notable Palm Beach residents who, as an aggregate, are symbols of the various cliques that define the essence of Palm Beach.

While it's a non fiction work, it has the literary ardor, flow, and the readability of a sticky novel you can't put down. The structure and clever collation of the vignettes is a thing of genius; like a movie that presents a montage of time periods in a character's life, Leamer seamlessly builds the story, jumping from one vignette to the next, and then taking us backwards and forwards in time. As you move through the book, the building of the individual events sculpts the big picture, and lives are viewed through different lenses. The result is a story that comes together so artfully, that it's hard to believe it's non fiction. For this reason, among others, Leamer has become my favorite contemporary writer.

As Leamer draws us into his world and follows the lives of the characters, like with Aesop's Fables, we cannot help but predict the tragic outcomes of the paths they have chosen. The irony here is that these are real people, illustrating that the tragic flaw of humanity is our inability to step outside our selves and get past the artificial world of our own construct. This is the real-life version of Faust, and a lesson in perception, misperception and mortality. Some of the characters were blessed with not surviving to read about their own catastrophic social failures.

Money seems to be the fulcrum in the lives of the residents, an ends and not a means. Greed is the corrupting factor that invariably crushes relationships, family, trust and trust funds. In a twist of the plot, however, money is the engine that fuels their existence, and yet it is still a limiting factor on the island. For the very privileged, social status is determined by caste, not wealth alone. You can keep up with the Jones', but they'll never have you over for dinner. The elite must maintain their exclusivity at all cost. The "caste" of characters is so colorful and the world so utterly bizarre, that it is hard to fathom such a place exists.

It's the American Dream stretched to extremes, at which point it becomes distorted and absurd. We get the special insight and understanding from an author who has lived among these people for fourteen years.

After putting down Leamer's new book, I was reminded of the profound statement that some ascribe to Samuel Johnson: "The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good."

Leamer's Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach
is a must read for anyone aspiring to "achieve" the American Dream. This book might put things in perspective and make you a little more satisfied with your lot in life.