Seattle Times book editor Mary Ann Gwinn reviews "Beautiful Ruins," a philosophical, funny social satire by Northwest author Jess Walter.
by Jess Walter
Harper, 337 pp., $25.99
The novel has enthralled the English-speaking world for the last 400 years or so. It has stretched, grown and morphed to a dizzying array of forms. The epic fantasy. The police procedural. The romance novel. And a favorite since the age of Dickens: the social satire.
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Embraced by everyone from Anthony Trollope to Tom Wolfe, the social satire remains enduringly popular. For good reason; readers get to peer, not just into the hearts of the novel’s characters, but into the soul of the culture itself. It’s a high-wire act for the novelist — how to retain empathy for his characters, even as he shreds the pretensions, the evasions and the hypocrisies of the times his characters live in.
Acclaimed Spokane author Jess Walter takes on such a task in his ambitious new novel “Beautiful Ruins,” as he creates an ensemble of memorable characters and runs them through the Hollywood entertainment mill.
Walter, a former journalist, has written several books, including the nonfiction “Ruby Ridge” and six novels. One novel, “The Zero,” a 2006 National Book Award finalist, took on America’s post-9/11 breakdown; 2009’s “The Financial Lives of the Poets,” the Great Recession. This time Walter’s subject is America’s entertainment culture (he was in Los Angeles just last month, writing a screenplay for “Poets”).
“Beautiful Ruins” dissects popular media — reality TV’s race to the bottom to find the lowest common denominator, story arcs for audiences with the attention span of a flea, bad taste in grotesque abundance. One “Beautiful Ruins” character, Claire, assistant to terminally amoral producer Michael Deane, ruminates on this culture (a ruin in itself) and the primacy of the pitch, the quick sell:
“To pitch here is to live. People pitch their kids into good schools, pitch offers on houses they can’t afford, and when they’re caught in the arms of the wrong person, pitch unlikely explanations. Hospitals pitch birthing centers, day cares pitch love, high schools pitch success … card dealerships pitch luxury, counselors self-esteem, masseuses happy endings, cemeteries eternal rest … It’s endless, the pitching — endless, exhilarating, soul-sucking, and as unrelenting as death. As ordinary as morning sprinklers.”
The story begins in the early 1960s with the filming of the movie “Cleopatra,” when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s love life became bigger news than the movie itself, and paparazzi jammed the streets of Rome to get a snap of the most famous lovers in the world.
Against this Technicolor backdrop emerges one man of pure heart — a young Italian named Pasquale Tursi, who runs a pensione on the Ligurian coast called Hotel Adequate View (just one of many of this novel’s LOL moments).
One day a vision arrives at the pensione — a young American actress, escorted via motorboat into the cove beneath the hotel. The actress, Dee Moray, has stomach cancer (or so she has been led to believe). She’s waiting for a man to come to help her through her ordeal. Pasquale falls in love, the love that never ends.
From here, the intricate plot ricochets hither and yon — from the tiny cliff-hanging hamlet of Porto Vergogna (Port Shame in Italian), to Florence, to Rome. From the Italian theater in World War II to the 2000s, with stops in Portland, Ore.; Edinburgh; Hollywood; Seattle; and Sand Point, Idaho.
A real-life theatrical giant, Richard Burton, makes several memorable appearances. Contemporary characters reflect our celebrity-drenched, no-shame zeitgeist. Shane, a Portland writer, uses his ex-wife Saundra to practice a pitch for a truly horrible idea; a screenplay called Donner! based on the life and times of the Donner party.
” ‘Huh,’ ” Saundra says when she’s heard the whole story. ” ‘And you really think you can sell this thing?’ “
” ‘Yes, I do,’ ” Shane says, and he does.
“It’s a key subtenet of Shane’s movie-inspired … faith in himself: his generation’s profound believe in secular episodic providence, the idea — honed by decades of entertainment — that after sixty or one hundred and twenty minutes of complications, things generally work out.”
After a couple of hundred pages of Walter’s mordant take on human weakness, I began to wonder where “Beautiful Ruins” was headed. Will anyone but Tomasso the Communist do the right thing? Will Dee find peace? Will Michael Deane get what he deserves?
I can’t say the answer is yes to all those questions, but Walter made me care. And I can report the author had more in mind here than exposing our weaknesses and skewering our pretensions.
“Beautiful Ruins” asks: How do you balance desire with doing the right thing? It’s the epic struggle of our time, when so much choice is at our fingertips, and finding the right path is correspondingly difficult. Pasquale’s mother tells her son the key is balance: “what we want to do and what we must do are not the same … Pasquo, the smaller the place between your desire and what is right, the happier you’ll be.”
Beneath Walter’s black comic’s mask beats the brain of an ethical philosopher and the heart of a romantic. Not everyone in “Beautiful Ruins” gets what they want. But they do get what they need.
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW’s
“Well Read,” discussing books
with host Terry Tazioli (go to www.tvw.org/shows/well-read for archived episodes).