‘A celebration of the idea that life is ‘a glorious catastrophe” – Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

brjwJess Walter has chosen to follow The Financial Lives of the Poets, a ruddy, comedic tale of an individual’s struggle in the face of the global economic crisis, with a still more ambitious pan-generational love story set in Italy and the US told, like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad or Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia, from a variety of perspectives refracted through a number of different forms (first novel, movie pitch, Hollywood memoir, etc).

Opening in a small Italian shipping village called Porto Vergogna in 1962, we meet Pasquale, a young man who has returned to look after his recently widowed mother at the family owned ‘Hotel Adequate View’ (the name a kind of tribute to a regular American guest they  look after, a writer called Alvis Bender who has spent years struggling with a novel) as he attempts to erect a beach and thereby entice more exotic customers. A guest appears, an American woman who Pasquale believes ‘he’d created… from old bits of cinema and books, from the lost artifacts and ruins of his dreams, from his epic, enduring solitude’, an actress fleeing a death sentence imposed by a doctor in Rome.

We flash forward from Pasquale to Hollywood (‘recently’) where Walter vividly brings to life the characters of Claire Silver, ‘chief development assistant for the legendary film producer Michael Deane’ (later described as ‘ a shark ceaselessly swimming forward into the culture, into the future’), and Shane Wheeler, a young man looking to pitch a humane re-reading of the Donner party’s disastrous trip west. Claire finds herself at a crossroads, her job not what she thought it would be, a new offer ditto, her relationship with her boyfriend going west and a long day of probably awful pitches stretching in front of her; Shane is a spoilt, ‘feral looking’ fella, on the wrong end of a failed marriage, reaping the rewards of being spoiled by his parents, busy re-evaluating his place in the world but harbouring hope, all the same, for the meeting that could change things around. The arrival of an elderly Italian looking for an actress who once stayed in his hotel is like a curveball for the pair of them.

Unlike, say, a TC Boyle novel, where we might follow young Pasquale and old Pasquale through a twin narrative, Walter’s eye feels restless, and the novel flits about like a butterfly: we meet Michael Deane (as a young man and as a strange, plastic faced old man), we meet the Donner party, we meet the American actress Dee Moray and her son Pat (who should be played by Patton Oswalt if they ever make a movie) – we even meet Richard Burton who it turns out may have had something to do with consigning Dee Moray to Pasquale’s Porto. Beautiful Ruins is like a celebration of the idea that life is ‘a glorious catastrophe’, an exploration of expectation:

‘I think some people wait forever [a young Dee Moray says to Pasquale], and only at the end of their lives do they realise that their life has happened while they were waiting for it to start.’

The restlessness doesn’t always work in the novel’s favour and there is a slight wobble just over two thirds of the way through (you read and wonder if Walter is either going to blow everything up and have the scattered fragments fire off every which way or pull everything together somehow – arguably he does both of those things). By the conclusion of the action, however, you read and nod and smile and come away from the book feeling enriched. Jess Walter remains a writer to watch, a man capable of becoming one of the greats over the next decade. What the man needs to do is fashion his Winter’s Bone, his Train Dreams, his White Noise, his Motherless Brooklyn, his Ice Storm, his Wonder Boys. Then everyone will be saying they read Jess Walter way back when.

Any Cop?: An audacious, ambitious American novel that doesn’t quite reach as high as it aims but is nevertheless a bloody good read.


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