It’s difficult enough for an author to fashion a single believable character; populating an entire novel-length tale with them approaches magic. But that is the miracle of BEAUTIFUL RUINS by Jess Walter, the best book I read on my recent Jamaican vacation, one of the two or three best novels I’ve read in recent years. It constitutes my Best Of 2012 list for fiction. It is funny, poignant, wise, goofy, melancholy, blissful, smart-ass, heartrending, all of these, some aspects even intersecting like a Venn diagram as the story careers through time and space and the gravitational force of its narrative pulls together a dozen or so very human beings in profound, unexpected, painful and joyful ways.
Dude, I liked it.
It opens in 1962 in a rural Italian village, where a sweet dreamer is carving out a sliver of beach as the centerpiece of his ratty “resort hotel,” the future grandeur of which exists only in his mind. A boat arrives – itself big news here in the middle of nowhere – and off steps a mystery woman, a blonde goddess who turns out to have come fresh from the set of 20th Century-Fox’s CLEOPATRA, currently shooting in Rome. Hmmm. You’re settling back to luxuriate in the author’s facility for color and detail: the lush, confident legato prose portends one of those earnest character studies of salt-of-the-earth strivers whose indomitable will, blah blah. Then Mr. Walter fires his first shot, and it’s wickedly accurate.
Fifteen pages in, the scene, time and atmosphere all change so abruptly that you wonder if the printer made a collating mistake on your copy. Chapter 2 is set “Recently,” in Hollywood, and issues from an inner voice stunningly different from the previous sequence. That Italian bywater, viewed in the golden moment cinematographers call “magic hour,” has disappeared in a sharp snap, and now we’re with a movie producer’s no-nonsense assistant, a serious film student whose career seems currently reduced to serving as a “D-girl” for her crass schlockmeister. Now Mr. Walter’s prose is ironic, aware, of the moment. The humor is broader — and, let’s face it, a little meaner. This author isn’t some cloistered student of Italian culture, but a sophisticated contemporary who knows exactly how The Industry works. And by now you are no longer simply smiling in recognition, but laughing out loud. Mr. Walter makes you give it up. What happened to whoever wrote the first chapter?
Don’t worry. He’ll be back. Because the Italian dreamer, the film actress, the producer, and his assistant are only parts of the glorious menagerie who inhabit and cross-pollinate this story, which lurches back and forth and in between. There’s also a depressive pop musician, a Hemingway wannabe, a desperate screenwriter, and all the friends and lovers who enter their worlds. This whole cross-section of humanity is intertwined in ways you can’t understand at first, but which come clear in dazzling moments of revelation; sometimes you’re ahead of the characters and sometimes they know more than you do. Then frickin Richard Burton walks in, and the bibulous old cocksman steals the stage as the most uproarious character in the book.
This might sound a little confusing, but it isn’t at all. Once you get used to the wrenching scene changes, and the fact that certain characters are going to spout inscrutabilities that will only become clear to you later, you sit back and trust the author’s sure hand, and the story proceeds exactly as it should. There are certain literary tricks to help you along: for example, all the scenes which take place in the past are written in past tense, but those which happened “Recently” are in present tense. Most people won’t even notice, because the story is so propulsive and the author so assured that nothing feels “written”; it’s more inevitable, as if the novelist is effortlessly taking dictation from some heavenly muse (and believe me, I know what an artful illusion that is). As if this weren’t enough, Mr. Walter even strays from the strict narrative form to give us: one act of a superb play; an excerpt from a very well-written war memoir; a chapter from the producer’s sleazy tell-all autobio; and the piece de resistance, a “pitch” for a major motion picture that reveals itself to be a three-hour, widescreen, David Lean-ish saga about the Donner Party, yet it’s the best movie pitch you’ve ever heard.
The heartfelt nature of the screenwriter’s magnificent scenario sweeps you away like a flood. It’s meta-satire, because you start to think, not only could somebody actually be presenting this case in Hollywood, but it might even make a pretty good picture! Mr. Walter breaks the spell by having a character burst out laughing when the pitch ends – that’s what you should have been doing all along, but for the majesty of the pitcher’s awe-inspiring epic empathy – but then the real author commits what I felt was the only indiscretion in an otherwise flawless tale. The scenarist, a relative bumpkin from Out Of Town, has clearly put heart and soul into his sprawling story. It’s deeply meaningful to him. But when, for reasons yet unknown to him, his pitch is instantly welcomed, he corrects the buyer, who wants to sell THE DONNER PARTY to a studio right away. “Uh, it’s just called DONNER! With an exclamation point?”
My first job in advertising was with a small firm still overseen by its founder, an affable octogenarian who loved the theater and was delighted to discover that had been my college major. He instructed me that the landmark musical OKLAHOMA! became a success because of the exclamation point: that is, it instilled an urgency that had never before existed in “legit” marketing. Since the Forties, of course, that bit of punctuation has come to exude a sense of irony; it’s for Branson, not Broadway. In my opinion, nobody who was both invested enough in the Donner story and savvy enough to cinematize it would ever so cheapen the source material — not simply agreeing to call it DONNER! but, even worse, coming up with the idea in the first place. It feels like something funny that occurred to the author while composing, but to my mind that detail just isn’t in character. And that’s the sole and single beef I have with the entire novel.
I think about such things while reading because I was a book editor for some years, and the knee sometimes jerks even when you wish it wouldn’t. But take my word for it: the pages will fly past as you become more and more engrossed in this gorgeous story. You will despair whenever we move away from the group of people you’ve just been following, because you will come to love them all and crave being with them even more. As I said, it’s tough enough getting under the skin of one single character: this book is crammed with fully-formed, utterly believable people whose fates revolve around, so sometimes smash into, each other. Jess Walter is a name that was new to me, though upon hearing me rave about this one, several friends have declared me hopelessly naïve: he has a string of dandies, they say. So this may have been my first one, but it definitely won’t be my last.
After the book ended, on the acknowledgements page, I enjoyed one final pleasant surprise: it had been edited by my friend Cal Morgan. I got in touch with Cal to tell him how much I loved the book, and he said he had been working with Mr. Walter for ten years and six novels, and “all of them are different.” Man, if that’s so, then I can’t wait to catch up.