BEAUTIFUL RUINSBy Jess WalterHarperCollins, $25.99, 337 pages
“Beautiful Ruins” is a colorful voyage through a village of the Italian Cinque Terre, the labyrinthian vicissitudes of Hollywood and the complicated lives of colorful characters, including the real-life Richard Burton. Jess Walter’s new novel consists of three main stories, plus a first chapter of a novel by an American ex-GI, the beginning of a memoir by a failed Hollywood producer and a play. Each cleverly adds an additional element in bringing all the stories together. It’s thoroughly entertaining and, at times, deliciously satiric.
The story begins in 1962 in Porto Vergogna (Port of Shame), “a tight cluster of a dozen old whitewashed houses, an abandoned chapel, and the town’s only commercial interest — the tiny hotel and cafe owned by Pasquale’s family — all huddled like a herd of sleeping goats in a crease in the sheer cliffs. Behind the village, the rocks rose six hundred feet to a wall of black, striated mountains. Below it, the sea settled in a rocky, shrimp-curled cove, from which the fishermen put in and out every day.”
This is where Pasquale Tursi lives with his crippled mother, Antonia, and her “wire-haired sister,” Valeria, “the ogre who did most of the cooking when she wasn’t yelling at the lazy fishermen and the rare guest who stumbled in.” When a beautiful, supposedly dying, American actress, Dee Moray, arrives in Porto Vergogna to stay at Pasquale’s aptly named Hotel Adequate View, Pasquale falls in love with her the instant he sets his “sea-blue eyes” on her.
In fact, Dee is not really dying, but she is pregnant by Richard Burton. She has a small part in the film “Cleopatra,” starring Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, that is being filmed in Rome. The producer, Michael Deane, wants to send her to Switzerland for an abortion. Deane’s motto in life is “We want what we want — we love who we love.”
Pasquale goes to Rome to find Deane and Burton. Burton “was about Pasquale’s height, with thick sideburns, tousled brown hair, and a cleft chin. He had the sharpest features Pasquale had ever seen, as if his face had been sculpted in separate pieces and then assembled on-site. He had faint pockmarks on his cheeks and a pair of unblinking, wide-set blue eyes. Most of all, he had the biggest head Pasquale had ever encountered.” Pasquale takes Burton (in a marvelously written drunken episode) to Porto Vergogna to see Dee, who, in the meantime, has disappeared.
The plot shifts to “recent times” in Hollywood, where Deane and his assistant, red-haired Claire, are looking for a script for Deane to make a comeback. “The first impression one gets of Michael Deane is of a man constructed of wax, or perhaps prematurely embalmed. After all these years, it may be impossible to trace the sequence of facials, spa treatments, mud baths, cosmetic procedures, lifts and staples, collagen implants, outpatient touch-ups, tannings, Botox injections, cyst and growth removals, and stem-cell injections that have caused a seventy-two-year-old man to have the face of a nine-year-old Filipino girl.”
Claire wanted to make movies. “She’d hoped for so much more when she quit her doctoral film studies program and went to work for the man who was known in the seventies and eighties as the ‘Deane of Hollywood.’ But when she arrived three years ago, Michael Deane was in the worst slump of his career, with no recent credits save the indie zombie bomb Night Ravagers. In Claire’s three years, Deane Productions has made no other movies; in fact, its only production has been a single television program: the hit reality show and dating Web site Hookbook (Hookbook.net) .”
Along comes Shane, a good-looking, naive young man, with a pitch for a new movie about cannibalism in the Donner party. “To pitch [in Hollywood] is to live. People pitch their kids into good schools, pitch offers on houses they can’t afford, and when they’re caught in the arms of the wrong person, pitch unlikely explanations. Hospitals pitch birthing centers, daycares pitch love, high schools pitch success … car dealerships pitch luxury, counselors self-esteem, masseuses happy endings, cemeteries eternal rest It’s endless the pitching — endless, exhilarating, soul-sucking, and as unrelenting as death. As ordinary as morning sprinklers.”
Claire is horrified; Deane (who is “dressed strangely in silk pajama pants and a long wool coat that covers most of his torso. If Shane didn’t know this was one of the most famous producers in Hollywood, he might go with escaped mental patient”) is thrilled. Everything is put on hold when Pasquale, now an elderly, married gentleman, arrives looking for Dee. And everyone departs for Idaho, where Dee, now really dying of cancer, is living with her son, Pat, and his girlfriend, Linda.
Pat was a loser, continually broke and into alcohol. “[E]dgy, smart [a] comic-music monolog[ist], Spalding Gray with guitar … [h]is lifework had all the lasting power and grace of a trailer.” After a failed stint at an Edinburgh music festival, he returns to Linda and Dee and reforms. He doesn’t know that Richard Burton is his father, but believes it to be Alvis Bender, the GI who wrote the first and only chapter of his novel in Pasquale’s hotel, who later finds and marries Dee. In the end, all the strands are knotted together.
At the beginning of the novel, the author quotes Louis Menand’s “Talk Story” reference to Richard Burton as “a beautiful ruin.” Burton is not the only ruin in this novel: beautiful Dee’s hopes and aspirations are ruined by Burton and Deane; Pat has ruined his youth with alcohol and other dependencies; Deane is a human wreck; and the sad little village of Porto Vergogna is also a beautiful ruin, as was the film “Cleopatra” that set the plot in motion.
“Beautiful Ruins” is first-rate storytelling. It is a novel filled with delightful humor, wit and scathing sarcasm for Hollywood and its “industry.” Some of it is hilarious, and some touching and genuinely moving. It is profound and frivolous, poignant and zany. It’s a fine piece of writing and great fun to read.
• Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.