Tuesday, July 24, 2012

BEAUTIFUL RUINS by Jess Walter (2012) HarperCollins Canada, 338 pages

In a recent interview (which I encourage you to listen to at Other People: http://otherpeoplepod.com/archives/970 ) Jess Walter said, "I think all of my books are about a wistful longing for connection." And, if "reading fiction is immersive, then writing fiction is even moreso." He knows.

An epigraph to the novel, attributed to Louis Menand's "Talk Story" in The New Yorker, explains "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." Trust Menand. And watch for yourself. Burton was all that and more--about to embark on a revival tour of Camelot, playing King Arthur, opposite Christine Ebersole's Guinevere, a performance I happened to see at Toronto's O'Keefe Centre, where he'd previously christened the house with Julie Andrews in 1960.

A sleepy Italian fishing village circa 1962, smart satire of contemporary Hollywood, a drug-addicted musician, and the charismatic Richard Burton on and off the set of Cleopatra are the defining elements of Walter's beguiling novel that for me will remain THE read of Summer 2012.

Consider the entrancing opening paragraph set in April 1962, Porto Vergogna, Italy:

"The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly--in a boat that motored into the cove, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pier. She wavered a moment in the boat's stern, then extended a slender hand to grip the mahogany railing; with the other she pressed a wide-brimmed hat against her head. All around her, shards of sunlight broke on flickering  waves."

Gorgeous, right?

Walter masterfully moves from that 1960s microcosm where the lives of local Pasquale Tursi, visiting American actress Dee Moray, hopeful novelist Alvis Bender and the inimitable Richard Burton temporarily intertwine to the studio lots and pitch rooms of contemporary Hollywood which he brilliantly satirizes through Claire Silver and her producer boss Michael Deane. Deane, author of the "memoir/self-help classic, The Deane's Way" makes outrageous statements like, "Ideas are sphincters. Every asshole has one. Your take is what counts. I could walk into Fox today and sell a movie about a restaurant that serves baked monkey balls, if I had the right take." Deane's cynicism may be worthy of your scorn, but it also feels right on the money.

There are sentences in this novel that made me catch my breath as well as moments so perfectly imagined that I knew I was in the care of a master craftsman who knows how it feels to be human and fallible. Here's one, early on, where past and present collide during a visit Pasquale makes as an old man to California, following up on an offer made fifty years before:

"Claire feels a tug in her chest, some deeper shift, a cracking of her hard-earned cynicism, of this anxious tension she's been fighting. The actress's name means nothing to her, but the old guy seems utterly changed by saying it aloud, as if he hasn't said the name in years. Something about the name affects her, too--a crush of romantic recognition, those words, moment and forever--as if she can feel fifty years of longing in that one name, fifty years of an ache that lies dormant in her, too, maybe lies dormant in everyone until it's cracked open like this--and so weighted is this moment she has to look at the ground or else feel the tears burn her own eyes...the name hanging in the air...and then floating to the floor like a falling leaf, the Italian watching it settle..."

Over and over again, I felt connected to Walter's characters in a visceral way. And, he is a sophisticated storyteller who layers narrative upon narrative--from the omniscient third person narrator to Bender's stab at his post-war novel to Deane's rejected draft of his memoir to a pitch for a cannibal film to a scene from another character's play.

Immerse yourself in this world of BEAUTIFUL RUINS. You will be richly rewarded.

1 comment:

Beth Hoffman said...

I've had this book on my list for a while, and your review (which, by the way, is fabulous) has convinced me to move it up closer to the top!