There is a certain someone* over at HarperCollinsCA who spends an awful lot of his time raving about Jess Walter. And because of that certain someone, a couple of years ago I gave The Financial Lives of Poets a try. I liked it ok, but wasn’t blown away by it. Just not my cup of tea.
Then this past June Walter published Beautiful Ruins and got a LOT of great press. I was intrigued to say the least. Finally, after many months of waiting, I have read it. I must say it is a pretty good book and at times even masterful. Walter is undoubtedly at the top of his game right now, which is good for him because his latest, We Live in Water, a collection of short stories, has just been released.
I have often heard Beautiful Ruins described as a story about Hollywood’s golden age and the filming of Cleopatra in Italy in the 1960’s. That, however, is only half (or even just a third) of the story. It is also story of an aging Hollywood producer and his idealistic assistant, a washed up actress, an Italian searching for the washed up actress and that actress’s son. I guess what I’m trying to say is that in many ways Beautiful Ruins is epic in scope. It is a story about dreamers searching for truth and love that spans 50 years. Though the portions of the story dealing with the inner workings of Hollywood are fascinating, they serve as merely a backdrop for what Walters is trying to achieve.
In spite of the grand tableau presented by Walter, I found the writing to be a little bit uneven. There were some portions that were absolutely unbelievable. These tended to be the portions where Walter was dealing with grand themes. Particularly near the end of the story Walter waxes poetic without sounding trite.
But aren’t all quests folly? El Dorado and the Fountain of Youth and the search for intelligent life in the cosmos – we know what’s out there. It’s what isn’t that truly compels us …true quests are not measured in time or distance anyway, so much as hope. There are only two good outcomes for a quest like this, the hope of a serendipitous savant – sail for Asia and stumble on America – and the hope of scarecrows and tin men: that you find out you had the thing you sought all along.
However, I felt that the prose was weaker when Walter was setting up the canvas upon which to paint his epic. At times the story lagged. This does not take away from the overall effect of the novel. It certain deserves the accolades it has received and I expect that whatever Walter produces next will be breathtaking. He has certainly honed his craft over time.
Who would like this book? The easy answer is lovers of Hollywood. Hollywood past and present is a constant in the novel. But if you are looking for a light, gossipy read this is not it. As I have mentioned Walter deals with grand themes. This elevates his tale to the level of serious fiction. Above all, I think Beautiful Ruins is a hopeful and inspirational novel.
*Yeah, that certain someone is Cory. Go figure.