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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

If you are still looking for a Christmas gift for the reader in your family, male or female, I think they’ll thank you for placing Beautiful Ruins under the tree well into the new year.  And you’ll enjoy the sound of their laughs-out-loud as they turn the pages.

I don’t recall what prompted me to read Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter a few months ago.  I had never heard of him although he has written five other successful novels, including  The Zero, a National Book Award novel about 9/11 and The Financial Lives of Poets, a satire on our economic crisis.  Nor do I recall anyone recommending the book.  So I am so thankful that somehow I stumbled onto it because it is a GEM. 

I’m going to fudge a little here and copy the description of the book on the front flap of the book cover because it summarizes so much so well (and frankly, I still have a lot of Christmas shopping to do) and then delve into some of my personal favorite highlights.  There is way too much to talk about.  The beautiful and funny writing, the unique and so varied characters, the settings—Italy, Hollywood, Idaho, the Northwest. 

From the book jacket:
The story begins in 1962. On a rocky patch of the sun-drenched Italian coastline, a young innkeeper, chest-deep in daydreams, looks out over the incandescent waters of the Ligurian Sea and spies an apparition: a tall, thin woman, a vision in white, approaching him on a boat. She is an actress, he soon learns, an American starlet, and she is dying.

What unfolds is a dazzling, yet deeply human, roller coaster of a novel, spanning fifty years and nearly as many lives. From the lavish set of "Cleopatra" to the shabby revelry of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Walter introduces us to the tangled lives of a dozen unforgettable characters: the star-struck Italian innkeeper and his long-lost love; the heroically preserved producer who once brought them together and his idealistic young assistant; the army veteran turned fledgling novelist and the rakish Richard Burton himself, whose appetites set the whole story in motion--along with the husbands and wives, lovers and dreamers, superstars and losers, who populate their world in the decades that follow. Gloriously inventive, constantly surprising, "Beautiful Ruins" is a story of flawed yet fascinating people, navigating the rocky shores of their lives while clinging to their improbable dreams.

I’ll start my comments with Jess Walter’s writing.  One book reviewer calls his work a literary miracle. Walter captures scenes that create beautiful imagery.  For example, the opening scene in the tiny fictional Italian coastal village of Porto Vergogna

She (the dying American actress) arrived in a boat that motored into the covey, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pier...All around her shards of sunlight broke on the flickering waves. Twenty meters away Pasquale Tursi was attempting to construct a beach under his family’s empty Pensione (Hotel). He watched as if in a dream or as he would think later, a dream’s opposite--a burst of clarity after a lifetime of sleep.  Chest deep in the cold Ligurian sea, Pasquale was tossing rocks the size of cats in an attempt to fortify the breakwater, to keep the waves from hauling away his little mound of construction sand. Pasquale’s “beach” was only as wide as two fishing boats and the ground beneath his dusting of sand was scalloped rock.  It was the closest thing to a flat piece of shoreline in the entire village. 

When the actress Dee Moray smiles at him Pasquale falls in love and would remain in love for the rest of his life—not so much with the woman, whom he didn’t even know, but with the moment. 

What follows is a description of the ancient dilapidated hotel, the improbable beach designed purposely to attract wealthy Americans such as the Kennedys, the plans to build a tennis court on a jutting piece of rock—all as futile and ridiculous as the name itself: Hotel Adequate View.

Another example of Walter’s way with words:  Porto Vergogna translates as Port of Shame-so called because it was once a place where sailors and sardine fishermen could find women of “a certain moral and commercial flexibility”.

Although filled with boundless comic passages, a favorite I cannot resist enticing you with is that of Michael Deane, the once famous Hollywood producer of the 70’s and 80’s, the “Deane of Hollywood” now reduced to producing a reality dating show called Hookbook. 

The first impression one gets of Deane is a man constructed of wax. It may be impossible to trace the sequence of facials, spa treatments, mud baths, cosmetic procedures, lifts and staples, collagen implants, outpatient touch-ups, tannings, Botox injections, cyst and growth removals and stem-cell injection that have caused a 72-year old man to have the face of a 9-year old Filipino girl.

Trying to picture what Michael Deane looked like as a young man in Italy fifty years ago is like standing on Wall Street trying to understand the topography of Manhattan Island before the Dutch arrived.

Moving on to characters and plots We’ve all read novels with multiple plots emerging and wondering how they would all pull together satisfactorily by the end of the book.  Often, we feel we’ve been manipulated or perhaps the culmination was a little unrealistic.  Not so with this story.  It comes together beautifully and leaves one with a sense that all is well with the human condition.  In a sense it is also good vs. evil (not blatantly like Star Wars) but more like in It’s a Wonderful Life or Willie Wonkie (all good deeds Charlie shall be rewarded...or something like that).

One storyline is with young and very likeable film student Claire, who works for producer Deane reading scripts, hoping to discover the next literary masterpiece but instead being inundated with realty TV show pitches featuring drunk models or sex addicts—scripts so offensive that to give them the green light for production would be akin to “singlehandedly hastening the apocalypse.”  Should she take the new job offer at the new Film Museum-- and while dumping her old job should she also dump her boyfriend whose favorite pastime is girlie shows and strip clubs? 

Then there’s Shane Wheeler, another down on his luck wannabee screenwriter who is about to, against all odds, successfully pitch a movie to Deane called “Donner!” Yes, it’s about the Donner party and story comprises one entire chapter.  We find ourselves also rooting for Shane who for all of his young life lived with the philosophy his loving parents instilled: act as if you can do something and you can do it. This creed has served him well until recently.

Then there is Elvis, a failed American writer and alcoholic veteran. As a once a year visitor to the Hotel Adequate View, he leaves his World War II novel in his room—actually just the lone chapter he continually rewrites every year for two weeks each summer.

Then there is the cameo appearance of the real life Richard Burton who is in Italy for the filming of Cleopatra—the scandal-ridden Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton epic, with a budget of about 300 million of today’s dollars.  I thought the title Beautiful Ruins referred to the rock formations on the Italian coast but it appears that Burton himself might be the ruin they are referring to.  They describe a scene where he appeared on the Dick Cavett show in the 80’s, at age 54, looking quite ruined.

And of course, the main characters—Dee Moray, the American actress and Pasquale Tursi.  I do not want to give a plot spoiler and reveal how and why all these characters unite to bring the novel to a satisfying conclusion. Perhaps it is the Hollywood influence but one can almost hear the swelling soundtrack at the end. 

If you are a fan of audio books, I highly recommend that you listen to this one instead of read it as the narrator, Edwardo Balarini,          brings Pasquale to life with his beautiful Italian accent. Ladies, you will fall in love with this sweet and humble, azure-eyed Italian. In my book, he joins the ranks of Heathcliff and Rhett Butler.

Beautiful Ruins is a great escape read and storytelling at its best with the right blend of pathos and comedy.  

Merry Christmas to all ...and to all a good book.

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