New York Times review byHelen Schulman
It is April 1962. A beautiful blond American actress, a dying beautiful blond American actress, mysteriously arrives alone and by boat to the dock of “a rumor of a town,” the fictitious Porto Vergogna on the Italian coast south of Genoa. She is 22-year-old Dee Moray, fresh off the Roman film set of “Cleopatra” — the scandal-ridden Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton epic, which, with a budget at about 300 million of today’s dollars, is among the most expensive movies ever made. This young woman’s charmed entrance into this tiny village, which is accessible only by water, captures the attention of Pasquale Tursi, the azure-eyed, even younger proprietor of an empty pensione, the “Hotel Adequate View.” “Chest-deep in daydreams” and also seawater, Pasquale, who aspires to turn the village into a resort town, has taken on the Sisyphean task of trying to build a beach out of “the rocky, shrimp-curled cove” by getting wet and digging the stones out of the inlet by hand. He holds a big rock beneath his chin and watches in “a burst of clarity after a lifetime of sleep” as Dee ascends onto the pier. She smiles at him and Pasquale falls in love, and “would remain in love for the rest of his life — not so much with the woman, whom he didn’t even know, but with the moment.”
For example: the second chapter jumps ahead 50 years to present-day Hollywood, well past the golden age of idols like “the whore and husband-thief Elizabeth Taylor” and her fifth and sixth husband, the alcoholic Burton (who has a great cameo), and smack into the disheartening age of reality TV. Here we meet an ambitious but discouraged development assistant, Claire Silver, an ex-academic with a porn-addict boyfriend, who is an employee of the legendary (fictional) producer Michael Deane. Back in the day, Deane was a fledgling publicist on “Cleopatra,” his first real gig; through his prescient embrace of scandal-as-advertising, he claims, he saved the film from financial collapse. He is also the man who, for reasons we will eventually learn, sent innocent Dee Moray to Porto Vergogna to rot. This act of heartlessness, along with other unsavory though savvy behavior, marked the beginning of an illustrious career for the neophyte striver, and in the 1970s and ’80s his success as a film producer brought him the title the “Deane of Hollywood,” until his star inevitably fell. Now, he is the producer of a hit reality dating show called “Hookbook” and its partner dating Web site, Hookbook.net.
We’ve met characters like Deane before, but it’s wicked fun to meet him here, again: “It may be impossible to trace the sequence of facials, spa treatments, mud baths, cosmetic procedures, lifts and staples, collagen implants, outpatient touch-ups, tannings, Botox injections, cyst and growth removals and stem-cell injections that have caused a 72-year-old man to have the face of a 9-year-old Filipino girl.” Once a month Deane Productions holds a “Wild Pitch Friday,” which means almost anyone can walk into Claire’s office and try to sell her an idea. Who walks in this Friday? Shane Wheeler, a wannabe screenwriter who is about to, against all odds, successfully pitch a movie called “Donner!” about, yes, the Donner party. (It is a pitch we will hear in its stunning entirety in a chapter called “Eating Human Flesh.”) I’m not sure if this kind of shtick is supposed to stick to your ribs or not, but it at times made me laugh out loud. Besides Shane there is also an elderly Italian gentleman, our old friend Pasquale, a half-century later, on California soil searching once again for answers about the mysterious Dee Moray.
“Beautiful Ruins” is Jess Walter’s sixth novel. He is a bold and funny writer who successfully surfed the zeitgeist in his visceral 9/11 novel, “The Zero” (2006), a finalist for a National Book Award; and in his last book, “The Financial Lives of the Poets” (2009), where he gave us his idiosyncratic take on the financial crises. Also a career journalist (he’s written for Newsweek and The Washington Post, among others, and published a nonfiction book about the Ruby Ridge siege in Idaho), Walter is simply great on how we live now, and — in this particular book — on how we lived then and now, here and there. “Beautiful Ruins” is his Hollywood novel, his Italian novel and his Pacific Northwestern novel all braided into one: an epic romance, tragicomic, invented and reported (Walter knows his “Cleopatra” trivia), magical yet hard-boiled (think García Márquez meets Peter Biskind), with chapters that encompass not just Italy in the ’60s and present-day Hollywood, but also Seattle and Britain and Idaho, plot strands unfolding across the land mines of the last half-century — an American landscape of vice, addiction, loss and heartache, thwarted careers and broken dreams. It is also a novel about love: amorous love, filial love, parental love and the deep, sustaining love of true friendship. Not all the 21 chapters are strictly narrative. Just as Walter used his protagonist’s own middling poetry to illustrate the insanity of his business venture in “The Financial Lives of the Poets” (a Web site, Poetfolio.com, in which he linked free verse with financial advice), Walter here throws in dialogue from plays real and invented; the lone chapter of a failed novel from an alcoholic veteran who spends two weeks every summer at the Hotel Adequate View continually rewriting those same pages; and a passage from Michael Deane’s own warts-and-all memoir, where he fesses up to the part he played in coldbloodedly ruining Dee’s life. (Rejecting this intro, an accompanying editor’s note reads: “There’s one other thing you should know: this chapter does not paint you in a very good light.”)
Either racked by guilt or in search of a good story, when face to face with Pasquale again after all these years, Deane takes the elderly Italian, Claire and the player-in-training Shane on a trip to find Dee and learn what has happened to her. Clearly, she has not died; less clear is how well she’s lived. In tracking their journey, while also hopscotching through time and place, Walter skillfully fills in the lives and loves of the characters we’ve already met, along with those of a seeming cast of thousands we meet reading further. His balanced mixture of pathos and comedy stirs the heart and amuses as it also rescues us from the all too human pain that is the motor of this complex and ever-evolving novel. Any reservations the reader might have about another book about Hollywood, about selling one’s soul (or someone else’s, and pocketing the change) will probably be swept aside by this high-wire feat of bravura storytelling. Walter is a talented and original writer.
337 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $25.99.
Find it at a local bookstore or at Amazon here.