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TBTS Reviews: Beautiful Ruins

June 19, 2012

I first came across Jess Walter’s name at work. We had a cart of remainders, ninety-nine cents each, last-chance get-em-outta-here books, and I had just pushed it out of the back and onto the sales floor. Even someone who spends as much time around books as a fish does around water stops to take a look to see what can be had for ninety-nine cents, and so I did, browsed like a customer even though I was on the clock. I was relatively new, so I still felt a little bit guilty for it. I saw a title, The Zero. We had five or six copies. Picked it up, saw the silver National Book Award finalist sticker on the cover, turned it over, checked out the jacket, seriously banged up from way too long on the sales floor, thought it looked interesting. Then I put it back, went back to work, forgot about it. Remembered its author’s name, though: Jess Walter.

A couple of years later, I lucked into a free copy of Jess Walter’s then-newest book, The Financial Lives of the Poets, from a publisher’s rep. Thought it sounded great. Took it, then let it sit unread on my shelf for an embarrassingly long time. One day, knowing I’d have to spend a very long time someplace I didn’t want to be, I took a book with me, and by chance it was that one. It was hilarious, full of sharply drawn characters and expertly plotted. It was exactly what I would’ve asked for if I’d known how, and about a quarter of the way in I realized something else: Jess Walter writes exactly the way I would like to. Not in an I-wish-I-could-do-that sense, but in a way that requires an imaginative leap, the way a singer might when listening to someone much better but similar enough that inside he hears his own voice, perfected. This is how idols are found.

And I remembered where I’d seen his name before. The guy who writes the way I’d like to someday, the guy whose story and style suited my tastes perfectly, I first encountered on a ninety-nine cent remainder cart, National Book Award sticker and all.

I don’t quite know how I should feel about that.

But it is my distinct pleasure to introduce you now to Jess Walter’s latest book, Beautiful Ruins. After that introduction I don’t think you’ll be all that surprised to hear this is the newest book I can’t stop talking about. It’s been a while since I was this completely satisfied when I finished a book. Leaping back and forth across fifty years and two continents, the story begins in 1962, when an American starlet arrives in a barely-on-the-map village in Italy to stay at the town’s only hotel, instantly captivating the young innkeeper. She is young, beautiful, and dying. Fifty years later, in Hollywood, an elderly Italian man arrives at the office of a once-legendary producer, trying to find out what happened to her.

A Jess Walter novel is a complex emotional stew. There’s a bit of everything in it: humor, humility, anger, despair, cynicism, romanticism, wonder, love. There’s a great cast: the cynical producer, the screenwriter at forty’s doorstep trying to make a late charge at a new dream, the wrecked musician whose talent far outstripped his ability to hold his own life together, even Richard Burton (Richard Burton!) Every character has impressive depth, every character feels alive and capable of surprising you. As a prose craftsman, Walter is an expert. He isn’t a stylistic daredevil intent on pushing the language to its limits, but he’s not timid either:

He’d never felt such a detached, existential sensation, such terrifying freedom – it was as if he were hovering above the village, above his own body – and it thrilled him in a way that he could never have explained.

“Dee Moray,” Pasquale Tursi said, suddenly, aloud, breaking the spell of his thoughts. Orenzio looked over. Then Pasquale turned his back and said the name again, to himself this time, in something less than a whisper, embarrassed by the hopeful breath that formed those words. Life, he thought, is a blatant act of imagination.

Literary fiction readers want to be made to feel. They want to be impressed by language, by characters, by emotional intelligence. They want to be surprised not by a twisting, turning plot but by a sudden sting, a wallop, a blow to the heart. Other kinds of readers, the more casual kind, want to be entertained. Plot matters. Construction matters. The urge to keep turning the pages and race to the end and see how it all turns out governs whether they leave a book satisfied or whether they log on to Goodreads to leave a pissy one-star review, outraged at being tricked into reading high-minded but largely inert literary fiction. Beautiful Ruins is the kind of book that can satisfy both kinds of reader, full of style and grace but blessed with a well-built, cohesive, seamless plot of the best kind, a chain of improbable, outrageous events made believable by the quality and variety of the characters caught up in it. It’s ceaselessly inventive. It’s full of well-crafted, daring sentences that you’ll stop and savor. It’s big-hearted but wise, romantic but with its eyes open. Before I reached the end, I knew which book I’d be talking about all summer, both at work and on this little corner of the Web. There are a lot of books for all tastes hitting the shelves this summer. No matter what kind of reader you are, this one is more than worth your time.

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