San Francisco Chronicle
By Jess Walter?(Harper, 337 pages, $25.99)
“Here for business or pleasure?” a car-rental clerk asks a would-be screenwriter who has just landed in Hollywood in the opening pages of Jess Walter’s poignant, comical and marvelous novel Beautiful Ruins. The hopeful scribe’s quick answer: “Redemption.”
One way or another, whether they know it or not, redemption — from years wasted, ideals abandoned, loved ones betrayed — is what all the major characters are chasing in this populous, craftily constructed, often hilarious chronicle whose action skips around in time and place between a more or less contemporary Southern California, a tiny Italian fishing village in 1962, Seattle in 1967, Edinburgh in 2008 and Sandpoint, Idaho, in the recent past.
Interspersed here and there are pages from an unfinished World War II novel, a chapter of a rejected movie-town memoir and several scenes from a Midwestern community-theater play. Such a fractured storytelling system is uniquely suited to a story full of professional and amateur artists trying to grab hold of some mercurial truth and fix it to the page, the screen, the disc, the stage or the canvas. “The eye sees everything upside down,” explains a painter whose pictures show the world wrong side up, “and then the brain automatically reverses it. I’m just trying to put it back the way the mind sees it.”
Porto Vergogna, Italy, 50 years ago, is where and when the oldest players in Beautiful Ruins get their first proper looks at one another: Dee Moray, a tall and blond 22-year-old actress with a bit part in the film Cleopatra shooting nearby; Pasquale Tursi, owner of the most humble inn (“The Hotel Adequate View”) where Moray lodges after being told she has cancer; Alvis Bender, American vacationer and possible novelist; studio publicist and future producer Michael Deane (“the Deane of Hollywood”) and — in a garrulous, whirlwind cameo appearance — the famous Richard Burton.
Most of the men become smitten with Dee, and she (to some extent) with them; but shouldn’t her art (or at least her career) come first? That’s assuming, of course, that fate allows her to live.
Fate can always turn fickle, and life is full of surprises, in this ensemble piece of a novel balanced by sudden jump cuts and lingering dissolves.
From tiny Porto Vergogna (Port of Shame) in the early ’60s, an isolated place where “only death is quieter,” the book leaps to today’s L.A., a hectic town where even the successful folk — especially the successful folk — lead lives of not-so-quiet desperation.
There’s Deane, for instance: now displaying his fourth trophy wife (“Kathy has reached the magical ‘half his age’ mark — thirty-six to his seventy-two”), still full of self-confidence (“I see what people want. I have a kind of X-ray vision for desire”) but long stumped for that one next great idea. And Claire Silver, Deane’s 40-year-old “chief development assistant,” who’s spent the last 12 disillusioning years “taking meetings, reading scripts and hearing pitches — pretending to like everything while finding myriad reasons to make nothing.”
Not to forget Shane Wheeler, that wannabe scriptwriter with a custom-made epiphany to justify giving up literature for the movies, “flickering pictures stitched in our minds that replaced our own memories, archetypal stories that became our shared history, that taught us what to expect from life, that defined our values. What was that but a religion?
“Also, movies paid better than books.”
As soon as the sure-handed Jess Walter — author of several well-received earlier books, including The Financial Lives of the Poets — sets one story segment in motion, he pulls the reader away to gaze at a different spinning wheel of plot. By this inventive method, heightening interest and maximizing suspense, the book brings several figures together in the fullness of time, all united in a quest for answers to a host of questions big and little, cosmic and personal.
“There are only two good outcomes for a quest like this,” we’re told, “the hope of the serendipitous savant — sail for Asia and stumble on America — and the hope of scarecrows and tin men: that you find out you had the thing you sought all along.”
Beautiful Ruins delivers both outcomes at once, in a mix of satire and love story rich with “the sort of funny that makes you sad, too.”