Sunday Salon Jan. 18, 2014
Reading this week: “Beautiful Ruins,” by Jess Walter for next week’s book club meeting. So glad my friend Nan picked this book, so that I, in turn, picked it off the shelf where it’s been for a year. Now finally open.
Both Beautiful and full of ruin, Beautiful Ruins is a modern-day tapestry woven with threads of Silver screen and Golden oldies, disappointment and desire, self-belittling and grandiose aspirations, nostalgia and harsh reality.
Warp (time warp too) is 1962, in the tiny fishing village of Porto Vergogna, Italy, – a crack in a rock-cliff coast –where Pasquale Tursi dreams Americans will discover his Hotel Adequate View. One day, one does – the somewhat beautiful, talented, but ailing, Dee Moray arrives for R & R.
Weft is modern-day Hollywood, in the production studio of the famous but fading Michael Deane, author of The Deane’s Way: How I Pitched Modern Hollywood to America and How You Can Pitch Success Into Your Life Too.
The two get threaded together when Pasquale comes in search of Moray around a half century after she leaves his hotel – starting at the best clue he has – Michael Deane’s studio. Flashes back from the has-been producer to the days when he was called in to clean up the messes during the production of the 1962 epic Cleopatra with its cast of thousands and its dazzling coupled stars, Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. Those were the days! Taylor and Burton have roles in Walter's book as well.
But most of the vivid characters that color the fabric are a collection of wannabees and has-beens; starry-eyed romantics and bleary-eyed cynics.
A few examples:
· Deane studio development assistant Claire Silver who is considering dumping her not-so-dreamy dream job and her strip-bar, porn consuming boyfriend (also not dreamy).
· Shane Wheeler, who, a few years after getting his MFA has already ditched the idea of writing fiction after major rejections and turned instead to Hollywood to pitch a movie.
· Aging singer/songwriter/comedian Pat Bender who has failed more than he’s succeeded in his blended professions but is given another chance when he’s discovered by a kid half his age who’s willing to promote him for a UK tour, including a stop at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival.
· From earlier times
· Alvis Bender: Self-described “Failed writer but successful drunk” who, prior to Moray is the only noteworthy visitor to Hotel Adequate View. After seven years of drinking/writing, he completes a chapter.
· And finally the could-have-been Dee Moray, who make such an impression on Pasquale that she changed the course of his life.
For all Walter's characters, life gets complicated by sex; for several, also by booze.
Walter, nevertheless, has a gentle humorous way with both those on the way up and those past peak --- some of whom, as in the case of the appropriately named Benders, are both. What makes Beautiful Ruins (an almost-oxymoronic title) so amusing is that the author seems entertained and intrigued by all – whether they are in Hollywood or some tiny out the way, never-heard-of before nook of the world.
As a result, I am too.