By Harvey Freedenberg
by Jess Walter (Harper Perennial, $15.99, 337 pages, Paperback)
If you’re reading this review when it’s published, at the height of the summer vacation season, I hope you’ve had a chance to get away for a week – or at least a few days – for some rest and relaxation. But if your travels don’t take you any farther than Hersheypark or a backyard pool, what could be a better companion than a captivating novel that transports you to the Italian Riviera, Hollywood, Edinburgh, London, Seattle and rural Idaho? Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, a lovely story of passions that endure for half a century, admirably fills that bill.
Walter, the author of novels that include Citizen Vince and The Financial Lives of the Poets, is the sort of writer who takes to heart the late Kurt Vonnegut’s dictum: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” Drawing from the world of film that animates the story, the novel features a colorful ensemble that encompasses everyone from a young Italian man who dreams of turning his humble fishing village (whose name translates to “Port of Shame”) into a tourist mecca, to an unscrupulous Hollywood producer, to Richard Burton in the midst of making the controversial blockbuster film, Cleopatra. Whether it’s love, fame or money, every one of these characters burns with an intensity of desire that lights up the story like a Fourth of July fireworks display.
Though there’s a silky smoothness to Walter’s narrative, the novel’s plot defies easy summary. Its chronology spans 50 years, beginning in 1962, when a young American actress named Dee Moray comes ashore in a small fishing boat in the village of Porto Vergogna, “a runt of a town, maybe a dozen houses in all, clinging to the rocky cliffs, surrounding a single sad business, a little pensione and trattoria named, like everything on that coast, for St. Peter.” She’s been spirited there by an ambitious production assistant, Michael Deane, to shield her from a budding relationship with Burton and his blazing affair with Elizabeth Taylor, which Deane is determined to whip into a tabloid sensation in hopes of salvaging the budget-busting disaster that was Cleopatra. Pasquale Tursi, the young man who imagines greatness for his humble town, even planning a cliff-defying tennis court at the hostelry known, with appropriate modesty, as the “Hotel Adequate View,” becomes infatuated with Dee. His appearance at Deane’s California production office half a century later searching for the actress is the event that sets the tumblers of the novel’s interlocking plots spinning.
Walter’s ability to help us see the core of humanity in each of his characters, no matter how repulsive or self-destructive their actions, makes Beautiful Ruins an enchanting novel. A septuagenarian Michael Deane, channeling The Producers’ “Springtime for Hitler,” decides to pitch an $80 million blockbuster about the disastrous Donner Party to extricate himself from a flawed contract, and yet he’s the one who leads a pilgrimage that includes Pasquale on a search for Dee 50 years after their Italian encounter. Dee’s son, Pat Bender, a once modestly successful musician who self-sabotages a brief mid-career revival, eventually finds the path to personal and professional redemption.
And Walter never loses sight of the need to tell a good story, a talent best expressed in the words of Alvis Bender, a blocked novelist who spends a decade of summers at Pasquale’s hotel, trying to get past the beginning of an autobiographical World War II novel whose sole chapter makes an appearance in the novel:
“All we have is the story we tell. Everything we do, every decision we make, our strength, weakness, motivation, history, and character – what we believe – none of it is real; it’s all part of the story we tell. But here’s the thing: it’s our goddamned story!”
One of the enjoyable features of the paperback version of the novel is that it includes both a brief interview and an essay in which Walter describes how Beautiful Ruins came to be. He confesses that he worked on the novel for 15 years, producing other novels, short stories, essays and reviews in the interim. “[N]o matter how many times I quit writing that book, it was as if Dee and Pasquale wouldn’t take no for an answer.” It seems clear that all that time was necessary for Jess Walter to construct this intricate, beautiful Swiss watch of a book, one that may find you swallowing down a lump in the throat as you turn the final page.