by Jess Walter
Let's get one thing out of the way up front: Beautiful Ruins is an absolutely perfect book, and if you read any review that claims otherwise, then that reviewer is trying too hard to be a smug killjoy and they should not be trusted. You should perhaps ask them if they also enjoy popping children's balloons and talking on their phone during movies because only a jerk would hate on this book.
In Sara-parlance: I wanted to hug this book's face off.
Twenty meters away, Pasquale Tursi watched the arrival of the woman as if in a dream. Or rather, he would think later, a dream's opposite: a burst of clarity after a lifetime of sleep.
That's on page one. Everyone in the business of writing talks about the importance of the first page, those magical lines that make the reader say, "Yes!" and feel compelled to go on, but Jess Walter is one of those writers that makes you conscious of your delight. You know you are in the presence of something great — not just a great story that holds your interest, but great writing. Writing that reconfirms why doing it well is so important and sets the standard for how you measure other books. I am not being hyperbolic when I say that Beautiful Ruins is flawless, and not "one of" the best books I've read this year, but the best. I've read some great books this year, so far, but they're just going to have to round out the Top 5.
Still, I struggle to describe the story in a way in which I will not spoil your reading experience. The element of discovery plays a vital role here, so I will do my best.
In a way, Beautiful Ruins reminds me of Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay in that the story traverses decades and comes from multiple points of view. And while Walter's novel does not concern New York City, Judaism, and comic books, both are about love, career and devotion.
Beginning in 1962, Pasquale Tursi meets a young actress who would like to stay in his small hotel — the wonderfully named Hotel Adequate View, shoved into the rocks of Porto Vergogna, Italy. Porto Vergogna is barely a town, populated only by fishermen, their wives, himself, and his elderly mother and aunt. Though he dreams of having a popular resort, complete with a beach and tennis court, most of the time, people stay elsewhere.
She glanced away — right, then left, then right again — as if looking for the rest of the village. Pasquale flushed over what she must be seeing: a dozen or so drab stone houses, some of them abandoned, clinging like barnacles to the cliff seam. Feral cats poked around the small piazza, but otherwise all was quiet, the fishermen out in their boats for the day. Pasquale sensed such disappointment when people hiked in accidentally or arrived by boat through a mistake in cartography or language, people who believed they were being taken to the charming tourist towns of Portovenere or Portofino only to find themselves in the brutto fishing village of Porto Vergogna.
The woman, an actress named Dee Moray, is very sick. She's come from the set of Cleopatra — Yes, the same movie involving Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton — and she desires quiet while she decides what to do next. She and Pasquale get along very well immediately, despite his limited English. The only other American Pasquale has hosted is a writer named Alvis Bender, a man who visits every year with plans for writing that usually devolve into drinking. Dee stays in what was "his" room — a room that now Pasquale will always think of as hers — and reads his one completed chapter left behind. In Chapter 4, Walter lets us read that solitary effort, set in 1945 wartime Italy, and it is not at all the distracting ploy "book-within-a-book" that other writers might use. Every detail, every change of scene, sets up what will come.
Time jumps forward to Michael Deane, aging Hollywood producer, reading a script that his assistant Claire has pronounced, "not even good by crap standards." He was once considered one of the Greats, but has only recently crawled out of a deep slump with the success of "Hookbook" — a reality show combined with a dating site. He is fine with "pitching the shit" out of anything that will make him a pile of money.
Claire, meanwhile, is wondering how much longer she will tolerate listening to people pitch these horrible shows to Deane — Rich MILF, Poor MILF, etc. Her boyfriend seems more interested in online porn and strip clubs, but he's pretty and she's used to him, so for now, he stays. She decides that unless she hears something worthwhile, something decent or maybe even great, she's going to leave her job.
As he drones on about the physics of this fantasy world (in Veraglim, there's an invisible king, an on-going centaur rebellion, and male penises are erect for one week every year), Claire glances down at the buzzing phone in her lap. If she were still in the market for signs, this would be a good one: her career-challenged, strip-clubbing lunk of a boyfriend has just gotten up — at twenty minutes to noon — and texted her this one-work unpunctuated question: milk. She pictures Daryl in front of the refrigerator in his underwear, seeing no milk and texting this inane question. Where does he think this extra milk might be? She types back washing machine, and while the Veraglim guy drones on about his schizoid fantasy, Claire can't help but wonder if Fate isn't fucking with her now, mocking the deal she made by giving her the worst Wild Pitch Friday in history […]
Michael Deane once worked in publicity for 20th Century Fox, the studio who released Cleopatra, and at the end of this very long Wild Pitch Friday, an old Italian man arrives at Deane's office. He tells Claire, "He say … you … ever need anything."
The game is afoot: The story glides back and forth between "recently," the past, and the somewhat less-distant past, where we learn how all these people are connected with one another, and what they've had to do along the way in order to survive. Scenes occur in both Italy and Hollywood, yes, but also Edinburgh and Sandpoint, Idaho. Sandpoint is about an hour and a half away from Spokane, Washington, Walter's place of residence. Since I lived in Spokane for seven years, I love that he continually finds ways to include his oft-forgotten or maligned home, and because I am quite familiar with the area, I know how exactly right he is with the following:
Word of the great Michael Deane's presence seems to be spreading throughout the crowd, and the ambitious make their way over, casually mentioning their appearance in the straight-to-video movies shot in Spokane, appearing alongside Cuba Gooding Jr., Antonio Banderas, John Travolta's sister. Everyone Claire meets seems to be an artist of some kind — actors and musicians and painters and graphic artists and ballet instructors and writers and sculptors and more potters than a town of this size could possibly support. Even the teachers and attorneys also act, or play in bands, or sculpt blocks of ice.
(Those movies, among others, were End Game, Hit List, Lies and Illusions, Lonely Hearts, and The Big Bang. For whatever reason, Cuba Gooding Jr. just keeps coming back to make shitty movies.)
It's true that in Spokane it seems like everyone has an artistic trade. There's a foodie culture too, but even the people obsessed with food are also web designers, filmmakers, etc. The area is juuuust big enough to have an inferiority complex compared to their Portland and Seattle neighbors, and the cultural points of pride are mixed with a heavy dose of self-deprecation. Like Pasquale, they "inhabit the vast, empty plateau where most people live, between boredom and contentment."
When one lives in a place that is not large nor known on a large scale, one does tends to not take art and opportunity for granted.
Beautiful Ruins is the sort of book that others might describe as "sprawling," "epic" or a "tour de force," and I suppose that's all true, but the first thing that comes to my mind is grand.
grand [via dictionary.com]
# Of large size or extent; great; extensive; hence, relatively great; greatest; chief; principal; as, a grand mountain; a grand army; a grand mistake.
# Great in size, and fine or imposing in appearance or impression; illustrious, dignified, or noble (said of persons); majestic, splendid, magnificent, or sublime (said of things); as, a grand monarch; a grand lord; a grand general; a grand view; a grand conception.
# Having higher rank or more dignity, size, or importance than other persons or things of the same name; as, a grand lodge; a grand vizier; a grand piano, etc.
Its timeline, its massive cast of characters, its declarations — all are grand. Its thoughts about love, loyalty, and passion are grand. The quality of Jess Walter's words and rendering of one's inner life? Grand.
Most importantly, Beautiful Ruins exists on a completely different level compared to so many other novels — a completely different elevation. That change in oxygen, that rush felt when diving into its world will sustain you. You will wonder how you had gone so long without knowing.
Full Disclosure: Harper sent me this book at my request. I (extra-)thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.
This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.