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Review: Steven Gaines' 'Fool's Paradise' shows South Beach's foibles

You don't read this book — you inhale it.

Considering the staggering cocaine consumption of South Beach, maybe "snort" is a better word choice.

Whatever word we use, Fool's Paradise: Players, Poseurs, and the Culture of Excess in South Beach is an irresistible book that wraps up hilarious and tragic stories and serves them in this elegant souffle.

Steven Gaines is a prolific author, having done books on the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Calvin Klein and Halston. For nearly 30 years, he's been at the back end of an as-told-to.

Then a few years back he surprised everyone with Philistines at the Hedgerow, an examination of the people and culture of the Hamptons, the wealthy summer enclave on Long Island, done with Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil as an organizing principle. Like John Berendt's 1994 book, Gaines' Philistines wove together several stories, taking the risk of not having a central character.

It worked then, and it works now. Fool's Paradise (the book deserves a much better title) is terrific social history buffet. You have to be a great reporter to write a book like this, and Gaines obviously is skilled at getting people to talk — and knowing where to find the good stuff. He's also a gifted storyteller. He fills the book with telling anecdotes and bons mots, but the narrative never gets off track.

It would be easy to focus on the drug-and-sleaze aspect of South Beach. But Gaines lets a little bit go a long way. He could fill the book with stupid celebrity tricks. But again, less is more.

This book succeeds not because of star power but because of story power. The centerpiece of the book is a war of dueling architects and builders fighting to build the iconic Fontainebleau hotel and then to destroy it out of spite.

Rather than the P. Diddys and the Rosie O'Donnells and the Madonnas, it's the civic boosters and Chamber of Commerce types that Gaines uses to get at the epic weirdness of Miami Bseach.

Few cities have a story so rich and colorful. Other people have written about the town, the place Jackie Gleason used to call on his weekly television show, broadcast from Miami Beach, "the sun and fun capital of the world." But few people have written about it as deftly as Steven Gaines.

William McKeen teaches journalism at the University of Florida.

Fool's Paradise: Players, Poseurs, and the Culture of Excess in South Beach

By Steven Gaines

Crown Publishers, 276 pages, $25.95

Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach

By Laurence Leamer

Hyperion, 368 pages, $25.95

Meet the author

Laurence Leamer will sign his book at 2 p.m. Saturday at Haslam's Book Store, 2025 Central Ave., St. Petersburg.

Fool's Paradise: Players, Poseurs, and the Culture of Excess in South Beach

By Steven Gaines

Crown Publishers, 276 pages, $25.95

Review: Steven Gaines' 'Fool's Paradise' shows South Beach's foibles 01/31/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 31, 2009 3:30am]
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