Mrs. Robinson, You’re Trying to Seduce Me
Paradise Rules decks out peculiar adolescence in luxurious wares
Beyond J.D. Salinger's choke hold on the American vernacular, The Catcher in the Rye exemplifies the skill required in creating a relatable protagonist. Seventeen-year-old Holden Caulfield is pure adolescence, an angsty blend of innocence and precociousness.
Seventeen-year-old Gates, the protagonist of author Jimmy Gleacher's Paradise Rules, is crafted in very much the same mold. But sympathizing with him turns out to be a task taller than the Rocky Mountains that Gates calls home.
Gates’ formative years read like an all-night Animal House toga party—his trials and tribulations following him like a John Belushi-shaped rain cloud. We're first introduced to Gates (just Gates, that's it) as a caddy at the prestigious and private Boulder Golf Club. When he's not caddying, or reading racy books to elderly people at the Harmony's Rest retirement home, he spends his time being madly in love with his best friend / girlfriend Melanie Vanleer. But there’s a problem. Melanie craves the romanticized ritual of losing their virginities together, without realizing Gates lost his to his 40-year-old live-in godmother Alicia years ago. On top of that, Alicia and Gates continue to have discreet sex on a fairly regular basis, under the nose of Gates' unknowing mother, who also happens to double as Alicia's on-again, off-again lover.
This weird and occasionally creepy love quadrangle progresses against the backdrop of a wealthy Colorado tourist town's elite society. Gates happens to be an incredibly talented golfer. He hustles millionaires for hundreds of thousands of dollars on a regular basis. These matches are typically arranged in shady fashion by Lu, owner of the Boulder Golf Club. He’s a troubled man with a serious identity crisis who still manages to offer Confucius-style nuggets of wisdom and advice.
In Gates' seemingly futile quest to find out who his father is, and in his necessary quest to find out who he is, the book takes a smutty turn with scenes that make Harlequin romance novels look like a “Hop on Pop” reading by Raffi. One passage describes a neighbor's house / swingers' palace that Gates' mother and godmother frequent. "Swings hung from the ceiling, human-sized cages occupied two corners," writes Gleacher. Then we're treated to a scene where Gates describes his mother in a post-coital tryst with Alicia and a neighbor named Stuart. Gates sees that Stuart is clad in a sarong and has “cupped one of Alicia's silicone sacks as he slept." Our impressionable young hero is permanently scarred. I can only picture the mansion in Boogie Nights.
Gleacher's writing is snappy, swift and cutting, maintaining an excellent rhythm and pace throughout the book’s nearly 300 pages. He has a natural ability to incorporate plenty of knee-slapping comic relief—even within the more serious themes. But Paradise Rules, much like country club owner Lu, suffers all too often from an identity crisis of its own. There's a lot of social commentary, a lot of over-sexualization, a lot of golf—the sum of which ultimately becomes too big of a distraction for the story to truly hit its stride.
If Paradise Rules was intended to be a coming-of-age tale, it isn't very effective. Even as a fictional character in a fictional work, Gates' world is a little too unbelievable. His complex puzzle doesn't quite fit. You don't feel for him like you're probably supposed to—and you don't find yourself cheering for him at the end when things finally come full circle—because he comes across as too caricatured. He’s not quite human enough.
"It's a good thing so much of life is based on appearances,” says Gates near the end of his narration, “because if everyone's truths were on display even Maui would feel like Detroit." This could tidy up and consolidate Paradise Rules’ message—if there was a clear message to begin with. Is Gleacher trying to provide a glimpse into the dark underbelly of the rich and famous? Is he trying to spotlight Gates' cruel environment despite his cushy lifestyle? At the end of the day, the reader is pulled in one too many directions for such kernels of insight to resonate. In Gleacher’s trip to demented paradise, even the most picturesque beach is littered with rusted-out Chryslers.