Jess Walter takes the title for his latest novel from a New Yorker description of fabled film star Richard Burton at the age of fifty-four. Immediately, “Beautiful Ruins” conjures visions of classic Hollywood splendor contrasted with the rancorous TMZ busts and vapidity seen in some pockets of the modern cinema scene. Walter, however, plays with readers’ expectations from the first page. If anything, he shows continuity between old Hollywood and its modern incarnation, in his sardonic, darkly comedic portrayal of the quiet scandals buried beneath the glitz and glam. Begging the question, were these ruinous people ever whole to begin with?
Beautiful Ruins is a sweeping narrative which traverses decades and oceans, connecting old and new Hollywood, America and Italy. The tale begins in 1960s Italy where the most expensive film of all time–Cleopatra–is being filmed. Enter Dee Moray, a rising actress cast as handmaiden to Elizabeth Taylor. With the film already over-budget and behind schedule, Moray discovers she is dying, and is hurriedly rushed off the set by green publicity assistant Michael Deane. Urged to seek treatment in Switzerland, a despondent Moray opts instead to take refuge in the tiny Italian coastal village of Porto Vergogna, wedged between the seam of two vertical cliffs. There, she meets Pascale Tursi, the starry-eyed Italian innkeeper of the “Hotel Adequate View,” Alvis Bender, a drunken, failed writer and war veteran, and the town’s rough cast of intoxicated, aging fisherman.
Flash forward to present day America, where Michael Deane’s star has risen, and fallen into the muck. Once a legendary film producer, the “Deane of Hollywood” is struggling to save his flagging career and sex life with a regimen of Viagra and ignominious film and TV productions like “HookBook.” Trapped at his side is doctoral film studies drop-out Claire Silver, hoping to retain a shred of dignity for the both of them. Then, back into their lives steps the romantic Italian Pascale Tursi, looking for the long-lost Dee Moray. Cue adventure.
Walter’s Beautiful Ruins has many strengths. For one, it’s hilarious, if a bit vulgar for my tastes at times. I made the mistake of trying to read Beautiful Ruins at night, and I laughed so hard I had to put it down or risk not sleeping at all.
Besides driving a solid plot, Walter has a flair for original, literary description and a gift for crafting characters who provide a keen study of the human condition.
Walter blends his dark, snarky humor with a certain surprising positivity. He leaves readers with the sense that while we are all imperfect creatures, when we come together, we can still find ways to create flashes of beauty in the darkness.