Beautiful Ruins A Novel By Jess Walter Harper. 342 pp. $25.99
Reviewed by Susan Balée
If you love books, then you love it when a friend whose opinions you trust comes to you and says, "You must read this novel – I couldn't put it down."
A colleague of mine did that last year, handing me Jess Walter's Land of the Blind, and saying, "You'll never doubt again that people's personalities are determined by what happens to them in childhood." I'm not sure if my colleague is right about nature vs. nurture (he's a sociologist, after all), but I'm positive he's right about Walter. This writer is a genius of the modern American moment, and he's captured it in yet another way in his latest novel.
Beautiful Ruins weaves together a beautiful narrative. It shuttles back and forth between 1962 in Italy, where Cleopatra is being filmed and the women Richard Burton loves (with red lips and cleft chin, blue eyes, dark voice and crooked grin all fueled by spirituous liquors) are causing trouble on the set, and modern-day Hollywood, where a survivor from that disaster of a film now subsists as an ancient, but legendary producer.
In Walter novels, as in our own lives, the past always informs the present and protagonists must wonder about the choices they made, and whether they'd make different ones if they had known then what they know now. The legendary producer, Michael Deane, says it best in his (much-edited, for libel) memoir: We want what we want….Dick wanted Liz. Liz wanted Dick. And we want car wrecks. We say we don't. But we love them. To look is to love. A thousand people drive past the statue of David. Two hundred look. A thousand people drive past a car wreck. A thousand look.
Underneath the stories of the several interesting protagonists in this novel resides the canny, card-dealing author. He's playing with genres and having fun: We read the first chapter of a novel by an American describing his World War II experiences in Italy. It's not quite Hemingway, but it's compelling. We see the last scene of a play about a junkie musician and the women who love him — that's great, too, especially since we've already watched his act at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and read the lyrics to his best song. In addition to Deane's memoir, we catch the pitch for a movie about the Donner Pass party (Cowboys! Cannibals!). As always in Walter, there's a lot to laugh at amid the tragedy, and a lot to think about — the medium really is the message, and this is a writer who knows only too well that the novel's time has gone by. Books have passed the torch to other media.
As someone who is spending this summer helping a Hollywood celebrity write her memoir (and no one will be reading it for the beauty of the prose, but for the inside story it reveals), I concur with Walter that the written word has lost its primacy as the narrative loom, the place you go to see a story spun out. Of course, if you're under 35, you already knew that. (But then, if you're under 35, you're probably not reading this review, in this newspaper.) Walter has one of his young protagonists, the creative writer turned script writer, make it plain for the oldsters reading this novel.
"Weren't movies his generation's faith anyway – its true religion? Wasn't the theater our temple, the one place we enter separately but emerge from two hours later together, with the same experience, same guided emotions, same moral? A million schools taught ten million curricula, a million churches featured ten thousand sects in the country. And we all saw it! That summer, the one you'll never forget, every movie house beamed the same set of thematic and narrative images – the same Avatar, same Harry Potter, same Fast and the Furious, flickering pictures stitched in our minds that replaced our own memories, archetypal stories that became our shared history, that taught us what to expect from life, that defined our values. What was that but a religion?"
Books are still my favorite medium, but I'm willing to admit that they've been marginalized. Language is protean, so, too, its forms. "Text," that buzzword that used to mean books themselves, now refers to something that pops up on your phone. Walter also has that covered as Claire, my favorite of the younger cast of characters in this book, mainly communicates with her boyfriend via text message: "Daryl … has now gone thirty-six hours without talking to his girlfriend and finally suspects something is amiss. The first text reads R U mad. The second, Is it the strippers."
Oh, you're gonna have fun with this novel. You'll love the characters and the storylines. And, when you're done, you'll be thinking who should play the different characters in the movie version. Kirsten Dunst would be perfect in the role of Claire. Just sayin'.