Lights, camera, life: A review of Beautiful Ruins

 

Beautiful Ruins
Jess Walter
352 pages, hardcover: $25.99.
Harper, 2012.

Beautiful Ruins, Washington author Jess Walter's dashing sixth novel, spans two continents and five decades, creating a panoramic view of the lives it encompasses. The paths of its nine main characters intersect in places as various as Italy, Hollywood, Seattle, and Sandpoint, Idaho, in the course of this sweeping story about artists trying to create meaningful work in the midst of junk culture.

The novel opens in 1962 in Porto Vergogna, a minuscule coastal Italian town where young Pasquale Tursi carries on his late father's business as the proprietor of the Hotel Adequate View. He receives few visitors apart from an American who comes once a year to scratch out a few pages of a novel about his experiences in World War II. But then beautiful actress Dee Moray arrives -- on leave from the set of the movie Cleopatra -- and Pasquale learns she has stomach cancer.

The book then shifts to present-day Hollywood, where a producer's assistant, Claire Silver, encounters the now-elderly Pasquale, searching for the actress he met long ago. He arrives on the same day screenwriter Shane Wheeler comes to pitch his idea for a movie about the Donner Party, which Claire incredulously summarizes as, "An effects-driven period thriller about cowboy cannibals? Three hours of sorrow and degradation, all to find out the hero's son is … dessert?" The three of them -- joined by Claire's boss, who worked on Cleopatra and feels guilty about his treatment of the actress -- set out to find the elusive Dee Moray.

Beautiful Ruins is hilarious, packed with jokes about Scientology, reality TV, MFA students who write books of "linked short stories called Linked," artsy Sandpoint residents, and Botoxed Hollywood players. But there is nothing frivolous at the novel's core, which becomes a beautiful, moving contemplation of the many opportunities people miss in love and work, even as they're trying their hardest to do the right thing, however difficult.

Pasquale's mother advises him, "Sometimes what we want to do and what we must do are not the same … the smaller the space between your desire and what is right, the happier you will be."

Walter is an accomplished novelist -- The Zero was a finalist for the National Book Award and Citizen Vince won an Edgar Award -- but Beautiful Ruins, brimming with the joyful, sorrowful and absurd clutter of life, might be his best yet.