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Book review: Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter

No one can say Jess Walter doesn’t take big chances. His last book, The Financial Lives of Poets, was a satirical and frequently heartbreaking look at the fall of the American dream, viewed through the lens of the crash of the economy and the false hope of Internet dreams (the protagonist starts a website devoted to poetry about money). Previous to that, Walter examined 9/11 in The Zero, a harrowing crime novel that was a finalist for the National Book Award, and then created one of the finest noir novels of the last decade with Citizen Vince, in which Walter used his hometown of Spokane to examine organized crime against the backdrop of the 1980 presidential election.

Walter’s books have always used crime to examine society’s larger ills and, yet, in his latest, Beautiful Ruins, he does a complete about face and instead uses love — true, unrequited and doomed-to-fail, in this case — to do the same thing.

Told over the course of 50 years in the alternating points of view of several characters, Beautiful Ruins is anchored by the appearance of Dee Moray, a striking American actress, in a small Italian fishing village during the spring of 1962. She arrives by boat, as all must, to Porto Vergogna — Port of Shame — and immediately the young hotelier Pasquale Tursi is smitten. However, he’s also troubled by the past, which includes the death of his father and a failed romance, and troubled by the present: He has the hopeless dream of building a tennis court among the crags of rock that hang over the coastline, or, as he’s doing when Dee arrives, carving a beach into the forbidding land, literally fighting against an unceasing tide, in hopes of attracting scads of American tourists … or just a few Kennedys.

These are activities that can only fail. So when Pasquale learns that Dee is dying — or, well, is told she is dying — there is nothing else for him to do but fall in love. The mystery of Dee’s “illness” is revealed soon enough when we learn that she was an ancillary romantic interest of Richard Burton’s on the set of Cleopatra and that the studio needed her disappeared, particularly in light of the budding (and illicit) romance of Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, and thus she was shipped off to this remote island while the studio’s smarmy fixer, Michael Deane, figured out a solution.

The novel plays hopscotch between 1962 and the present, when we learn that Deane has become something like a cross between Robert Evans and William Shatner — a man whose past glories have allowed him to stay in the game just long enough to profit from the only genre that deserves him: reality television. “The first impression one gets of Michael Deane is of a man constructed of wax, or perhaps prematurely embalmed,” Walter writes. He’s 72 now but resembles a “9-year old Filipino girl,” who loves “what the culture loves, its sheer speed, its callous promiscuity … to him, the culture can do no wrong.”

However, when Deane’s beset-upon assistant, Claire, phones him one afternoon to inform him that an old Italian gentleman has arrived at their offices looking for Dee Moray, Deane is forced to face the reality that culture eventually boils down to a person, and that there are consequences for actions, even those which took place in the yellowed past.

Beautiful Ruins is a novel of tangents, all of which spoke from that tiny crust of land in Italy where Pasquale first sees Dee, but it eventually envelopes World War II, the false sense of importance tied to Hollywood fame and what ultimately constitutes great art. It’s a wide tableau, but Walter is up to the task, interspersing his novel with bits of his characters’ artistic pursuits (including the pitch for a movie all about the Donner party called Donner! and a chapter cut from Deane’s own memoir) and trenchant examinations of what it means to fall in love with a place as much as a person, be it Italy, Los Angeles or a tiny hamlet in Idaho.

Interestingly, it is when Walter deconstructs present-day Hollywood that the novel falls a bit flat. There’s not much new to say on the topic other than it’s a terrible business filled with terrible people, that we all rather love. But all is forgiven when Walter’s finest creation takes the stage: a fictional version of Richard Burton that paints the old lion in comic hues that reveal a deeper sadness. Beautiful Ruins isn’t what one might expect from an author who has spent his career on the dark side of humanity, but that’s the wonder of it all, really, as this novel shows an author in full bloom, able in the final pages to bring the reader to tears of sadness and happiness within just a few words of each other.

Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter, Harper, 337 pages