Beach Reads for Intellectuals: Jess Walter’s “Beautiful Ruins,” Reviewed

Beautiful Ruins
by Jess Walter

Harper; 352 p. 

Jess Walter’s new novel, Beautiful Ruins, is an important book that might not make it. With an implacable burst of books, no one can possibly stay on top of everything out there while at the same time attempting to catch up on the classics. How we decide what to read depends so much on taste, but nothing will ruin a book for some more than the title of Great Beach Book. When we think of beach books, we think of breezy, easy, often shallow reads that rarely challenge us. Instead they allow us to fill up time while we cook our skin in the sun. While I can understand that Beautiful Ruins fits some of these adjectives, I think we need to consider it important contemporary literature, despite the ease and mellifluous flow of its prose.

Without a clear central protagonist, Beautiful Ruins weaves a slightly disparate narrative into a portrait of the immediate now as well as the timeless universal. Walter achieves this feat through use of multiple viewpoints in different times and through different genres and styles of writing. (Most notable are a chapter that is simply a play and other chapters that are the first chapters of other unpublished books.) In the sections set in the past, Walter writes with an elegiac and nostalgic pen of a slower time and place, of an outpost in nowheresville, Italy that plays home to a stunning actress hidden away on this remote island for a mysterious reason. There, a young Italian falls in love with her both as a person and as a concept, and in his naive Romantic dreams fights for her against some truly humorous and shady Hollywood types: a fictionalized version of the dipsomaniac Richard Burton and the satirical character that represents the ruthless agent who succeeds because he reads into people’s true desires with a ruthlessness usually reserved for sociopaths. A man, who later in life, will find success at an old age through a great send up of both of Internet and TV tendencies, in Hookbook, described as follows:

It’s called Hookbook. It’s like a video Facebook for hookups. Anyone who posts a video on the site is also auditioning for our TV show. We snatch up the best-looking, horniest people, film their dates, and follow the whole thing: hookups, breakups, weddings.

The present-day sections, written in the more frenzied pace of the Internet, focuses on these characters years later, but also on the younger cast: Two young Hollywood types, one an assistant producer, and one a writer, both on the cusp of success. In addition to them, we see the life of the now older actress, a play director in a rural town with a embittered son, made cynical by his numerous near successes throughout life.  Walters paces the book to perfection allowing the past and the present to mingle creating a suspenseful and compelling narrative. Living on the fringe of the story is the unforgettable character Alvis Bender, a veteran of WW2 and a writer who in his life writes nothing but the first chapter to a sad and moving first chapter to his book.

He connects this wily narrative not only through his clever overlapping plot but, more importantly, through a finely tuned tone. A sweet, sad tenderness permeates each story, a sense of the fleeting beauty in all moments of life from the most dramatic to the most mundane. He encompasses the sweep of life in all the right small moments. He manages that beautiful feat particular to fiction that captures the whole warp and woof of life through the smallest details. It feels magical. I want him to write about anything and everything. He taps into both the exigent spirit of the time, our zeitgeist, at the same time that he siphons from the universal, timeless human spirit. Walter’s love of his material, of people, makes this hard to separate from. I actively miss this book, this world he created or captured the moment I read the last word. On top of the emotional connection this book engenders, it invites a second read because of its deceptive simplicity. Hidden within lyrical passages are important ideas about love, narcissism, success, and happiness.

While it is true that Walter indulges or depicts what we might refer to as more Romantic notions of life and fiction i.e. the power of love, of will, of beauty, ultimately of dramatic fiction itself to change us, to move us, to give us hope, we cannot discount such a book as “breezy” because it embraces less cynical values. Not to say that Walter only writes with a cheery demeanor. In fact, he displays his satirical gifts that places him as one of the more shrewd observers of both our past and our present. For example, this opening description of Hollywood captures so much of the absurdity of that fabled land:

Before sunrise— before Guatemalan gardeners in dirty dinged lawn trucks, before Caribbeans come to cook, clean, and clothe, before Montessori, Pilates, and Coffee Bean, before Benzes and BMWs nose onto palmed streets and the blue-toothed sharks resume their endless business— the gentrification of the American mind— there are the sprinklers: rising from the ground to spit-spray the northwest corner of Greater Los Angeles, airport to the hills, downtown to the beaches, the slumbering rubble of the entertainment regime.

On that note, Walter separates himself, with success, from the prevailing literary trend. He achieves a rare feat in our literary culture obsessed with the sadness of life: he embraces the quiet despair at the same time that triumphs all of that which makes us feel warm, fuzzy, part of some endeavor more than a random group of atoms tumbling off each other.

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