Jess Walter’s new book, “Beautiful Ruins,” opens with a lonely Italian hotelier named Pasquale Tursi catching sight of an American starlet, who has come to stay in his tiny coastal village. He falls instantly and hopelessly in love. It’s an absurd notion, he knows, but he can’t help feeling that he’s summoned this vision “from old bits of cinema and books, from the lost artifacts and ruins of his dreams, from his epic, enduring solitude . . . Life, he thought, is a blatant act of imagination.”
This last phrase aptly describes Walter’s audacious sixth novel, which weds the grand dramatic impulses of the cinematic blockbuster to the psychological interiority of high literary art. The result is a page-turner that doubles as an elegant meditation on fame, desire, duty, and fate.
Walter began his career as a journalist, and though his first three books were sophisticated crime procedurals, his last two have taken on big subjects. “The Zero,” nominated for the National Book Award in 2006, explored the aftershocks of 9/11 on the national psyche, while “The Financial Lives of Poets” deftly plumbed the depths of the Great Recession.
“Beautiful Ruins” is Walter’s effort to confront the modern lodestar of American mythos — Hollywood. To do so, he has assembled a sprawling cast, and linked all of them by means of a plot far too intricate (and ingenious) to detail. We begin with Pasquale and his glamorous visitor, Dee Moray. They spend a single tumultuous weekend together, during which Pasquale discovers that Dee has been banished from the set of “Cleopatra,” the campy 1963 production starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, because she is pregnant by Burton. The action then ricochets ahead five decades. Pasquale has shown up in Los Angeles hoping to find his lost love.
If the book were being pitched to Warner Brothers, it would be boiled down to “Il Postino” meets “The Player.” But what makes “Beautiful Ruins” such an irresistible read is not just Walter’s uncanny ability to shuttle the reader across decades and continents, but his refusal to treat any of his characters as bit players. They are all driven to action by recognizable, if sometimes reckless, urges, and even those who seem at first glance most repellent are granted moments of wisdom and grace.
Richard Burton makes an uproarious cameo, boozing his way across Rome and assailing poor Pasquale with drunken profundities. Burton’s bastard son winds up fronting a grunge band, before finding his way to an unlikely career on the stage. And consider Michael Deane, the treacherous publicist who sets the tale in motion by sending Dee Moray into exile.
By the time we encounter him in the present, Deane is an aging producer with a face winched by plastic surgeons and a golden itch where his conscience should be. Still, as his long-suffering protégé Claire recognizes, the producer is no cynic. “He loves what the culture loves, its sheer speed, its callous promiscuity, its defections and deflections, its level-seeking ability to always go shallower; to him, the culture can do no wrong. Don’t ever give in to cynicism, he is always telling her, believe in everything. He is a shark ceaselessly swimming forward into the culture, into the future.”
Walter has a relaxed comic style that has drawn comparisons to contemporaries such as Gary Shteyngart and Colson Whitehead. But his latest book is more along the lines of Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” Like Egan, Walter shifts between his characters expertly, allowing the adventure to unfold from multiple perspectives. He also makes good use of unorthodox storytelling forms. One chapter, for instance, is an unpublished excerpt from Michael Deane’s memoir, in which he narrates his heroic rescue of Cleopatra with Runyonesque brio. Another chapter takes the form of a pitch for a movie version of the Donner Party (titled “Donner!’’ naturally) which is both a virtuosic send-up and an astonishingly tender evocation of the doomed expedition. These riffs, though great fun, are not authorial indulgences. They are deployed in the service of a story that manages to ratchet up the suspense until the final page.
Walter has had his brushes with Hollywood, and he captures the decadent rituals and vanities of the place with a keen eye. But he also recognizes the awesome power of the movies in our cultural imagination, those “flickering pictures stitched in our minds that replaced our own memories, archetypal stories that became our shared history, that taught us what to expect from life, that defined our values. What was that but a religion?”
There are a few spots where the writer tugs a bit too hard on the heart strings, or briefly reduces his creations to mouthpieces. But these are quibbles. Walter has planted himself firmly in the first rank of American authors. He has crafted a novel with pathos, piercing wit and, most important, the generous soul of a literary classic. The Michael Deanes of the world will no doubt seek to capture his incandescence on-screen, and my guess is they’ll wind up producing a gaudy desecration. No matter. “Beautiful Ruins” will endure.
Steve Almond (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of the story collection God Bless America.