Hopscotching between 1960s Italy and contemporary Hollywood, Jess Walter’s “Beautiful Ruins” is a novel about memory, nostalgia and ephemera.
A young man named Pasquale manages his family’s hotel, Adequate View, in Porto Vergogna, Italy. A starlet named Dee Moray arrives in a boat. She’s supposedly dying of cancer, and she changes Pasquale’s life. Falling in love with Dee, worshiping her with a pure chivalric heart, he never forgets her.
Fifty years later, Pasquale comes looking for Dee in Hollywood. His quest collides with the comic-earnest journey of a young man named Shane, who is pitching a cannibals-and-all movie about the Donner Party. Pasquale and Shane seek out famed director Michael Deane, who might know Moray’s fate. But to reach this Hollywood legend, the two men must pass muster with Deane’s wry, disillusioned young assistant, Claire. Pasquale tells a story that sounds like a movie, and Shane pitches a historical adventure movie that’s ridiculously dark and way too real.
With lively prose, sharp transitions and an entertaining cast of characters, Walter constructs a lemon meringue pie of a novel, crisp and funny on top, soft and gooey in the middle. Excerpts from Shane’s treatment for “Donner!” are whipped into a nice froth: “The camera makes its way down a long line of wagons. . . . On the front of the wagon train we see: CALIFORNIA OR BUST. Swing around the other side of this wagon and we see: DONNER PARTY.” There are cringe-inducing passages by Alvis Bender, a terrible novelist who comes to Italy to write after World War II: “I put my arm around Maria’s shoulder. And I can’t say how it happened, but suddenly we were off the road and I was on my back and she was lying on top of me in a grove of lemon trees, the unripe fruit above me like hanging stones.” Also quite funny are Claire’s clueless, porn-obsessed boyfriend, a would-be screenwriter, and the aging, Botoxed Michael Deane. Sweeter and gooier are Pasquale’s love for Dee Moray, his search for her in America, the hearts exposed, the tears shed, the secrets revealed.
There are glitches. At times, Walter extends a moment two or three beats too long. When a young couple admire a baby, we hear, “He is so big,” then, “He should be. He eats as much as his father.” And then, “Our hungry little miracle.” Then, “You leave some food for your sisters, little Bruno.”
At other times, Walter’s dialogue lands heavily: “Finally, Dee Moray pulled away. She wiped at her eyes and looked into Pasquale’s face. ‘I don’t know what to say. . . . But I want to say something to you, Pasquale, I need to.’ And then she laughed. ‘Thank you is not nearly enough.’ ” He handicaps Pasquale, his noblest character, with broken English: “I am try to say — ”
Adept at mixing flavors and textures, Walter whips together dying beauty, enduring love, war-shadowed Italy, haunting landscapes, veiled identity. It’s a tribute to his light touch and to his speed that when movie star Richard Burton makes a cameo appearance in Italy, he’s almost bearable, even though he’s more cartoon than character: “What goddamn kind of place hasn’t got a bottle of cognac in it?”
The quick reader will enjoy a plot that’s well constructed and also lively, shuttling fast between parents and long-lost children, books and movies, the Italian village Porto Vergogna with its “dozen old whitewashed houses” and Claire’s coffee shop, where almost every table sports a “sullen white screenwriter in glasses, every pair of glasses aimed at a Mac Pro laptop, every Mac Pro open to a digitized Final Draft script.” Time traveling, cross cutting, inter-textual and cross-cultural, this is “The English Patient” without the poetry or history.
What does that leave? This is the central question of the book. What is left us in a world of cliches? What can we imagine when our deepest visions come from movies? What is authentic? What endures? The beautiful ruins of Italy? The ruins of youth? The myths we tell ourselves? Delicately, Walter suggests a difference between public ruins and private memory. In perhaps his finest touch, the last revelation in the book happens off camera and offstage.
Goodman’s novels include “The Cookbook Collector,” “Intuition” and “Kaaterskill Falls.”
By Jess Walter
Harper. 337 pp. $25.99