Miles Away… Worlds Apart
By Alan Sakowitz
(Legacy Series Press, 223 pages, $27.95)
If you ever attend literary conventions, you will notice an obsessive attention to literary conventions. Every discussion about books harps on categorization, quantification, codification: "What genre is it?" Everyone you buttonhole immediately wants to pigeonhole. You learn quickly enough the overarching presumption of our time, that there is no such thing as a new kind of book. There are only new versions of old models.
Although my subscription to this closed-mindedness was complimentary, and I never bought in of my own volition, I will not claim to be unaffected. Like my colleagues, I have become less hopeful of encountering originality between the covers. (Notice that I am all set up here to begin a sentence with "Imagine my surprise…", yet I manfully resist the temptation. As a Jew, I cannot mix cheesiness with red meat.)
You don't need to imagine my surprise, I'll tell you all about it. Ponzi schemes have been proliferating lately, and it seems like everybody who claims he can make your money grow is putting it in his vest. Allen Stanford, Bernie Madoff, Samuel Israel III, Al Gore: so many scammers out there ready to give you nothing for something. Last year, here in Florida, we added a few boys to this list. The most prominent one, which blossomed into a national story, was Fort Lauderdale attorney Scott Rothstein. He was such a good friend of Charlie Crist, who appointed him to the nominating committee for Florida's 4th District Court of Appeals, that he thought Charlie might make him a Senator.
Rothstein's law firm was not making the money to pay for his red and yellow (ketchup and mustard?) Lamborghinis. Instead of milking it and banking it like other lawyers, he just bilked it. That is, until he made the mistake of trying to con an Orthodox Jew named Alan Sakowitz, a neighbor of mine in North Miami Beach, who saw though the charade and fed the info to the Feds. Having blown the whistle, he is now entitled to blow his horn. I picked up Sakowitz's new book, Miles Away… Worlds Apart, expecting a boilerplate potboiler. Instead I discovered that rarest of qualities to be captured in print: originality. Not just a new book, but a new kind of book.
Instead of cashing in on the notoriety of the case to write a sensationalistic work steeped in sleaze, he turned this experience into a morality play. He interweaves his memoir of being lured by Rothstein with stories about local heroes who put virtue over profit and the needs of others before their comforts. As we learn about a user, an abuser, a manipulator, a conniver, we get to contrast his grasping ways with honest, solid folk who are more motivated by principle than by interest.
The Rothstein story is all in here, without sensationalism. His bunco game worked in a fascinating way. He convinced people that his firm had settled large cases out of court, with confidentiality of payment as a condition. When a real lawyer tells you there is real lawsuit money, you tend to believe it, even if the money is being paid off the books. You could see that this was a unique setup where fairly solid income was traveling along a fairly invisible highway. The winners of these settlements wanted their cash now, the mark was told, so they were severely discounting the obligations to receive a lump sum now.
In the end, investors who did not discount this information wound up taking their lumps soon enough. The only real suits Rothstein had were made by Armani and bought by him with other people's money, vestments from investments. It is all so sad and sordid, but Sakowitz helps us to swallow this bitter pill of human failing by coating it with the sugar of human feeling. We can warm our hearts by looking at the miners and rescuers in Chile, even as we learn that John Elway was taken by yet another Ponzi clone. After reading this book, I am convinced that nice guys really do finish first.