Reading Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins for a book club recently, I was constantly reminded of the rumor that the work was to be made into a film, as the Italy section of this novel just screams “this will look great in the trailer” with moments such as a comical fight on the beach or a drunken Richard Burton giving a rousing speech to the fishermen of Porto Vergogna before an aborted rescue attempt[i]. Even the high concept set-up is perfect for a movie: a young actress getting her first big break in Cleopatra is diagnosed with stomach cancer and sent to a quiet fishing village to wait for her lover, where she catches the eye of the young hotel proprietor. Meanwhile, in modern-day Los Angeles, a jaded production assistant, a wannabe screenwriter, and way past-his-prime movie producer try to discover the actress’s fate (all the while exposing the kind of movie industry in-jokes that are shown so often in films that they really aren’t in-jokes anymore). I can see the kind of film Beautiful Ruins could be, and it would be a terrible disappointment, one that leaves the best parts of the novel out in favor of easy storytelling.
The Italian sections of this novel are not without their charms. Pasquale, the young hotel proprietor, has a decent backstory and the mystery of whatever became of Dee once she left the island is a hook that keeps you reading through the first third of the work. Once the action shifts more toward life back West the novel gains momentum and explores the day to day reality of family and relationships–and the difficulties of being honest with oneself–Walter hits on something that resonates much longer than the screenplay-perfect Italian backstory does.
One of Walter’s strengths is his ability to capture the Pacific Northwest, not just its landscape, but its sensibilities[ii], and the problems with the Italian sections of Beautiful Ruins are that despite the intriguing set-up, they ring false, not capturing the same kind of authenticity and spirit of the sections in Seattle, Idaho, and elsewhere. Even the Los Angeles chapters provide eclectic delights, such as an entire chapter devoted to a movie pitch about the Donner Party. Dee and Pasquale, in the early portions of the Italy story are ciphers, beautiful, but woefully naïve. The more lived-in characters of the present are more relatable, whether it is the retelling of a promising date gone wrong, an addict’s last deluded musical stand, or a young man’s realization that he’s been a “milk-fed veal” his entire privileged life[iii].
One narrative that serves as a bridge between the Italian and American sections is that of Alvin Bender, a World War II veteran who sells cars for his father ten months out of the year and then enjoys two months of drinking and writing the great American novel in Porto Vergogna. It is not much of a spoiler to note that Alvin, a charming, raging alcoholic, never finishes his novel, but rather rewrites the same chapter over and over. A character notes that perhaps that chapter was all he had in him. It is included in the novel, and it is perfect. You go in thinking you will be treated to a sweet wartime romance only to realize too late that it is something else. The shift is subtle, and devastating. Some may think that this kind of digression from the action in Beautiful Ruins was beside the point, taking away from the love story of Dee and Pasquale and the final chapter of Beautiful Ruins, with its cheat of a happy ending recap for all, but to me, Alvin’s chapter and other digressions such as a character’s failure at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Shane’s Donner Party pitch are the point. As Shane says of the end of his protagonist’s journey, “William Eddy has simply…survived. And as he faces the horizon, we realize that maybe it’s all any of us can hope to do.”
Not every story is the epic journey of grand moments and sweeping success. There is a grace just in survival. The best moments of this novel reflect that.
I got curious about the rumored film version of Beautiful Ruins, and to my very pleasant surprise I see that Todd Field (In the Bedroom, Little Children) is attached to direct and has supposedly written the screenplay with Walter. This fills me with a hope that the film, if ever made, will reflect more than its screenplay ready passages and will retain what makes it a must read.
[i] Complete with characters with names like Tomasso the Communist! Cue wacky music.
[ii] Every transplanted Northwesterner needs to begin reading his works right now, even weaker entries such as early mystery The Land of the Blind, where a teenage character provides the most perfect and concise description of the difference between Spokane and Seattle ever recorded.
[iii] Walter’s supporting characters are a joy. I could have read a whole novel about Saundra, Shane’s waitress ex-wife; P.E. Steve; or of Pat’s adventures at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Julie Feighery is a college reference librarian in the Midwest. In her spare time, she likes to hang out with her two sons, jog (with a “soft j” like Ron Burgundy), and fight the squirrels for the spoils of her vegetable garden.