At the back of the paperback edition of Beautiful Ruins there is an interview with the author wherein he describes the tortured, laborious process of writing this book. Unless you’re a writer looking for reassurance, I advise you not to read the interview, since it’s a little like finding out a magician’s secrets. In many ways it is more satisfying just to marvel at the spectacle and not understand the process at all.
Beautiful Ruins is, let there be no doubt, a work of magic. Jess Walter impressively corrals an amazing array of individual characters and gives them all the space to reveal their heartbreakingly real humanity. He spans decades and continents with ease, never once hitting a wrong note or an awkward phrasing. However hard he worked and for however long it took, this is a novel that justifies his efforts. It is just that good.
In 1962 Pasquale Tursi is futilely laboring at improving his family’s pensione, The Hotel Adequate View (an unusual name which will be explained later) hoping to achieve his late father’s dream of turning their little village of Porto Vergogna (Port of Shame) into a resort town for rich Americans. A boat pulls up carrying just the kind of guest his father could only imagine, a beautiful American woman, a young actress just named Dee Moray. Dee is on a break from the set of Cleopatra, an epic film whose production is threatening to bankrupt 20th Century Fox and end the marriages of both its stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Dee has been sent to the isolated village to recuperate from a devastating diagnosis, but as will quickly become clear, there is a lot more going on here, most of it a byproduct of the sleazy underbelly of the American film industry.
In the present day, legendary, but down on his luck film producer Michael Deane, who got his start at Fox in the Cleopatra days, is sucking the lifeblood out of his assistant Claire Silver, by forcing her to listen to the pitches of every weirdo and has-been that her boss owes a favor to. Claire wants to make the kinds of movies she grew up watching, and not the zombie, vampire, or superhero flicks that dominate the box office. Just when Claire has just about had it, one Friday Pasquale Tursi, now fifty years older, walks into her office and in limited English tries to explain that he needs to see Michael Deane.
From these twin beginnings Walter spins out a multi-layered plot, going back to Dee’s fateful arrival in Italy and her subsequent disenchantment with Hollywood. Along the way many other characters arrive on the scene, including the drunkard writer Alvis Bender, whose anti-war novel has reached the length of one whole chapter after twelve years of work. Shane Wheeler is a divorced fuck-up whose pitch to Michael Deane is so bad it’s just what Michael needs. And a fictionalized Richard Burton struts upon the stage and dominates his few scenes in an inimitable fashion, drinking and swearing all the while. Burton’s entrance into the story was a killer scene, one that would make a fantastic part in a movie.
Walter’s writing is straightforward but also exquisite in its precision and power. He is a master in complete command, and his sense of plot is deft and awe-inspiring. Beautiful Ruins ends in such a way that no other ending could even possibly be imagined. This is a major achievement, and a great book. I implore you to seek it out.