Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Book: Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter (2012)

Porto Vergogna is the ugly step-sister of a series of picturesque Italian cliff towns, a backwater no tourist visits on purpose. So the arrival of a beautiful American woman in April 1962 is naturally assumed to be a mistake. When the woman reveals that she is an actress filming Cleopatra in Rome, that she was sent to the town, and that she is dying, she becomes an obsession for Pasquale Tursi, proprietor of the aptly named Hotel Adequate View.

The novel that flows from this dreamy beginning, the sixth by Edgar Award winner and National Book Award finalist Jess Walter, moves back and forth in time and across intersecting lives. We venture from Italy of the 1960s to contemporary Hollywood, stopping in Edinburgh and Seattle. We meet a host of striving and discontented souls, including a reptilian Hollywood veteran whose many cosmetic procedures have given him “the face of a nine-year-old Filipino girl,” his long-suffering associate (the other job she’s considering is one of Walter’s finest jokes), writers with varying degrees of ability and ambition, and Richard Burton.

As usual, Walter tosses off gorgeous bits of description effortlessly. A commuter flight is “a toothpaste tube of returning college freshmen and regional sales associates.” Pasquale, upon encountering Burton for the first time, takes note of the actor’s enormous head as well as his other attributes. “He had the sharpest features Pasquale had ever seen, as if his face had been sculpted in separate pieces and then assembled on-site … one look and there could be no doubt: this man was a cinema star.” Walter braids his story together from a host of sources – movie pitches, unpublished manuscripts, scarcely produced plays – the approach highlighting the author’s boundless invention.

But the flash isn’t for its own sake. As the novel progresses and supporting players take star turns, Walter unveils the craft beneath, his careful construction illustrating how individual actions can ripple through the years and buffet other people, many of whom will never know the cause of the disturbance. Walter Pater famously observed that “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” Beautiful Ruins comes tantalizingly close to achieving that exalted state, uniting form and content; the closing chapter has the effect of an unexpected symphony, as narratives we didn’t even realize we were following are wrapped up in a crescendo of conclusions. (A late cameo will please fans of Walter’s crime novels. At least it made me happy.) This moving, masterful book is further proof that any conversation about America’s best current novelist has to include Jess Walter.