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Towards the end of Jess Walter’s lovely new novel, Beautiful Ruins, one of the characters muses as the world is unraveling around him that life, despite all its shortcomings, is a “glorious catastrophe”. It is this ability to recognize beauty despite disappointment that makes this story so compelling.
The action in the book takes place between April 1962 and the present day, and travels between a tiny Italian fishing villa and Hollywood, with many stops and intermissions along the way. But basically, it is the story of dreamer Pasquale Tursi, whose family owns and runs the antiquated “Hotel Adequate View”, and the day the lovely, dying American actress steps on his makeshift beach.
When we first meet Pasquale, he is a young man who believes that his tiny village of Porto Vergogna could flourish if it simply could draw a bit of attention away from the more developed towns along the coastline south of Genoa. It is beautiful, remote, quiet, subdued – the perfect get-away for the hoped-for flood of harried American vacationers, looking to leave behind for a while the hassles and noise of modern life. But Pasquale is not merely a dreamer – he realizes that making dreams come true involves dedication and hard work, so he goes about performing what seem to be herculean tasks despite the ribbing and outright scorn he gets from the local fishermen who frequent his three-table cafe: building a beach rock by rock and bucketful of sand by bucketful of sand, and leveling out a tennis court from the cliff behind the hotel.
Much of the book is seen from Pasquale’s point of view, and in it we are enchanted. Not just because he is a rare character with an endearing naiveté and unabashed romantic streak, but one who is practical and only gently flawed, as well. He sees and appreciates the beauty of Porto Vergogna and the lovely landscapes around him, and believes they will continue as is even after the Americans come. So he prepares for what he knows will draw them:
He went back outside and down to his beach, but it was hard to tell if the currents had taken any more sand away. He climbed up past the hotel onto the boulders where he’d staked out his tennis court. The sun was high over the coast and hidden by wispy clouds, which flattened the sky and made him feel as if he were under glass. He looked down at the stakes that marked his future tennis court and felt ashamed. Even if he could build forms high enough to contain the concrete to level his court – six feet high at the edges of the boulders – and managed to cantilever some of the court so that it hung out over the cliff, he would still have to blast away at the cliff side with dynamite to flatten the northeast corner. He wondered if it was possible to have a smaller tennis court. Maybe with smaller rackets?
Suddenly his dream seems to be coming true when the American actress Dee Moray shows up at his beach. She is everything he believes she would be: luminous, wheat-blonde, “impossibly thin yet amply curved” and indeed, “taller and more ethereal than any woman he had ever seen”. Her voice is breathy, her Italian non-existent. She is also a creature of tragedy: she is dying of cancer, diagnosed shortly after beginning work on the movie Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Her illness has cut that work (and perhaps her career) short; because of her involvement with the film (and to cut down on negative publicity), the studio arranges for her retreat to this remote cove to come to terms with the diagnosis and to decide on her next steps – and to meet with a “friend”.
Later, he heard clumping around in the trattoria and came out, but he knew it wouldn’t be Dee Moray; she did not appear to be a clumper. Instead, both tables were full of local fishermen hoping to get a look at the glorious American, their hats on the tables, dirty hair plastered tight to their skulls.
Of course, life is seldom this clear cut and virtually never follows the path that circumstance seems to have laid out for us – and so it is with Pasquale and Dee, and those who are drawn in to their story both in 1960s Italy and later in the soul-sucking fantasyland of Hollywood: Michael Deane, the studio’s executive production assistant later turned legendary film producer; Claire Silver, his young, modern development assistant, eager to prove herself even amongst all the disillusionment; Alvis Bender, a writer who is the only other American to ever stay at the Hotel Adequate View, returning one week each year to work on his novel (which never seems to grow beyond its one original chapter); Shane Wheeler, the young wastrel who comes to Hollywood to fulfill his destiny, er, pitch a movie, and ends up being roped into performing the role of translator for the events that follow.
Jess Walter takes all of these intertwining story lines and uses flashback, script, chapter and memory to layer time back and forth between points in the past and present. Smaller characters – Pasquale’s mother and aunt, an enthusiastic music promoter, an Italian thug, a famous (VERY famous) movie actor, a young girl walking along the road in wartime Italy, a clueless boyfriend – all accentuate the lives and sensibilities of the main characters with deft strokes of color and motion, adding a fullness to a story that is already unfolding so gracefully.
Walter’s simplicity and straightforward writing belies the expansiveness of his story. Pasquale sees much and knows more, but while at times he is a man of decisive action (especially when he feels compelled to act protectively), he is not driven nor hounded by ambition (that perhaps is kept in abeyance for other characters). He maintains an open heart despite setbacks and disappointments yet stands as a steady moral compass and open soundboard for all the personalities that eddy around him. Making Pasquale the touchpoint of the story allows all the other story lines to swirl and snap without fear of their blowing us away.
Bender pondered the wine in his hand. “A writer needs four things to achieve greatness, Pasquale: desire, disappointment, and the sea.”
“That’s only three.”
Alvis finished his wine. “You have to do disappointment twice.”
And no less effective is the juxtaposition of the gracious and historied Italy – whether remote Porto Vergogna or bustling Rome – with the brash upstart America and its brittle tinsel town (as well as the other end of the spectrum, small town Idaho). The carried image of sunlight glinting off of waves while fishing boats bob in the distance and small feral cats slip through the shadows is ever present throughout much of the story, and gives a depth to the ambiance which is relaxing and invigorating at the same time. When Dee presses a wide-brimmed hat against her head as the wind rouses “the escaped hairs from her ponytail into streamers around her face” upon her arrival, we can picture it perfectly without even trying.
I found reading Beautiful Ruins to be relaxing yet engaging, like the best of vacation getaways. I looked forward to each new page, each new segment and each new leap of faith, but was able to luxuriate in the prose in a way evocative of slipping into a new yet precious landscape. And having taken this journey once, I think I very well may return again to revisit the literary path already read and experienced, for I don’t think it will diminish from being familiar. And, after all, if modern time will not allow me this… well, I’ll always have Porto Vergogna.