Beautiful RuinsBeautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I got a table at the Rainbow Room
I told my wife I’d be home soon
Big ships are approaching the docks
I got my hi-fi boom box
Mashed potatoes in cellophane
I see my life going down the drain
Hold me baby and don’t let go
Pretty girls help to soften the blow
Palm trees; the flat broke disease
And LA has got me on my knees
I am the bluest of blues
Every day a different way to lose
The Go Getter
I’ll be the Go Getter
That’s my plan
That’s who I am
The Go Getter
Yeah the Go Getter

The Go Getter The Black Keys

I have a complicated relationship with social satire. I give the vulgar and violent (thinking here of South Park and Chuck Palahniuk) a wide berth –– but the bizarre sensibilities of Monty Python, the gentle humor of Garrison Keillor or the politician-skewering tirades of Stewart and Colbert tickle me. I have the hardest time appreciating modern literary satire. When I commit to spending a few days with a book, I want story. Good, old-fashioned, beginning-middle-end story, not cynical commentary wrapped in wit.

Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins is the marriage of gentle social satire with old-fashioned story-telling; a marriage that gives life to a delightfully original and brave novel. Like any skilled satirist, Walter creates a world that is slightly off-kilter – not bizarre, not unbelievable- just a sense that something, somehow is slightly amiss. The reader is always a bit wobbly – guaranteeing she will take nothing for granted in the narrative.

The title Beautiful Ruins refers to one of novel’s central themes: the inevitable crumbling of youth, of promise, of dreams. There are so many beautiful ruins in this story, which takes place in 1962 Italy and present-day Hollywood, with a bit of contemporary Spokane and Edinburgh and 1970’s Seattle tossed in, not to forget a slight detour to the Sierra Nevada mountains in the 1850’s.

Among the ruins we find the village of Porto Vergogna and the dreams of its most ambitious resident, hotel owner Pasquale Tursi; the actress Dee Moray, who comes to Porto Vergogna in 1962 to convalesce; Alvis Bender, a war veteran turned writer who can’t write past his first chapter; the legendary movie producer Michael Deane, who has made a beautiful ruin of his face with Botox and plastic surgery; Deane’s assistant Claire Silver, whose love life and career represent everything she hates about sell-out, superficial Los Angeles; former Seattle grunge rocker Pat Bender, a mid-life shamble of addiction and self-loathing; and aspiring screenwriter Shane Wheeler, who delivers one of the book’s most surprising chapters, a pitch for a movie about that great ruin of the American frontier spirit: the doomed Donner party.

That’s a heckuva lot of characters (and there are more, far more!) and this is a heckuva lot of story. Yet it works, in all its madcap and poignant twists, thanks to Walter’s crisp writing and efficient plotting. You fall in love with these characters – Walter gives them such soul, your heart is constantly tugged. This is a book you could read in the space of a Sunday, not because it’s simple, but because you simply don’t want to put it down. I waver and withhold a fifth star because the Hollywood scenes feel a bit thin and fantastical to me – there’s that satire twitch of mine – and I couldn’t quite connect with Claire, who holds a pivotal role, until she, well, I don’t want to spoil things.

If you don’t care for Hollywood endings, you might feel cheated by Walter’s wrap-up of his intertwined story lines. Me? I’m a sucker for spoonful of sugar to make the medicine of satire go down.

Richard Burton makes a brilliantly comic cameo; it is in fact this famous actor for whom the book is titled, after Louis Menard’s piece in The New Yorker: “[Dick] Cavett’s four great interviews with Richard Burton were done in 1980….Burton, fifty-four at the time, and already a beautiful ruin, was mesmerizing.”

Jess Walter uses his characters and their exploits to poke firmly but not cruelly at the bubbles of pop culture, our adoration of celebrity and beauty and the fickle nature of the film and publishing industries. Not to mention the fickle and fleeting nature of love. He shows the folly of great expectations and the beautiful ruins of unfulfilled hopes and dreams. It is a charming literary mosaic.
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