Beautiful Ruins. Jess Walter.

Walter, Jess. Beautiful Ruins. HarperCollins, 2012. F;8/16.

This is a charming complicated story that I read because I was impressed with a piece of the author’s short fiction, Mr Voice, included in The Best American Short Stories in  2015. There are themes and character types here that also appear in the short story, but the story seems tighter and better-focused to me. I have a bit of trouble characterizing my overall impression of this novel. It was good, but I’m always looking for somebody to join the ranks of Borges, Kafka, Cunningham, Wallace, Ferrante, and Nabokov, and this novel isn’t in that league, although I thought the short story came close.

It’s a layered-in-time plot, jumping from the 1960s to the present, and also jumping from Italy to Hollywood to of all places Sandpoint Idaho (I happen to have gone skiing there with some university friends many decades ago). Walter borrows authenticity and gravity by bringing Richard Burton and Liz Taylor in as fictional characters, and this is effective, but not in the same way that Wallace incorporates celebrities (Letterman, Alex Trebeck, LBJ) by completely reinventing them as new fictional characters. Walter’s novel feels more like it’s hitching a ride, Burton being among the couple or three most fascinating characters.

The most three-dimensional original character of the story is Pasquale, an Italian man young in 1962 but elderly in the present who inherited a grubby hotel in the town near (but not in) trendy Cinqueterre, and who falls in love with a beautiful American actress erroneously appearing on the dock, who checks into his hotel. The two form a romantic bond. PLOT ALERT It turns out the actress is a minor character in the movie Cleopatra, being shot not far away in Rome, and is pregnant with Richard Burton’s child. Rather than take her under his wing as he would love to do, Pasquale makes the difficult decision to return to Florence and marry the girl who has had his child.

Cut to the present. Michael Deane, a spectacularly sleazy Hollywood factotum and producer who made his name rescuing the otherwise catastrophic movie Cleopatra, is now looking for a completely worthless movie idea to manoeuvre the studio to which he is indentured into letting him out of his contract. Elderly Pasquale appears at the same time as Shane Wheeler, a script writer with a dreadful movie proposition. Deane sees his chance. Everyone meets up in small-town Idaho where the beautiful American actress, now elderly of course, is living with her (and Richard Burton’s) son who, no surprise, is a burnt-out (but rescued) alcoholic playboy and fabulous actor in the local theatre scene. END PLOT ALERT

The short story Mr Voice, written I believe in 2015 and so predated by the novel, has some similar important elements in it. A very beautiful woman, ambiguous paternity, and an emotionally climactic statement that a woman or girl can be whatever she wants, doesn’t need to do anything she doesn’t want to do, and that “No one gets to tell (her) what (her) life means!”

“Beautiful Ruins” refers to a lot of things, Richard Burton for sure, the movie Cleopatra, a fabulous painting on the wall of the cave near the old hotel in Italy, and maybe Michael Deane’s career, but the title doesn’t make as much sense in respect of the other characters, who seem to come out reasonably well although for at least one of them it took most of a lifetime.

I’m struggling to figure out why Walter’s short story had for me more impact than this novel. I’m reminded of my impression of Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh, a novel I read after being very taken with one of her short stories. Maybe it’s just an order of magnitude harder to create and sustain dramatic power throughout a novel the way the real greats mentioned above manage to, than to do the same thing in shorter fiction.

This held my interest, but did so partly through the borrowed magic of celebrity. One might do better to read Mr. Voice instead. 8.3/7.8.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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