Bob Moyer took a break from his travels long enough to send another review. I think he had as much fun writing this review as he did reading the book. That’s good for us, because we can read both the review and the book.
By Robert Moyer
BEAUTIFUL RUINS. Jess Walter. HarperCollins. 352 pages. $25.
Pasquale, an old Greek played by Mickey Rourke (with a bad accent), shows up at the offices of Hollywood producer Michael Deane, played by George Hamilton (with bad plastic surgery). He’s looking for the no-longer young starlet who showed up at his “Hotel Adequate View” on the Italian Riviera 50 years ago. The starlet had a small role in Cleopatra, but took a big roll in the hay with Richard Burton, the Beautiful Ruin of the title.
Deane, now the producer of the successful TV series Hookup, was the onsite handler of all the scandal surrounding the movie —Burton (played by Charlie Sheen in a cameo) and Elizabeth Taylor, Eddie Fisher, etc. He stashed the actress, Dee Moray (Lindsay Lohan as a young woman, Sally Field as she ages) in Pasquale’s pathetic hotel just down from the trendy Cinque Terre. Then — life happened.
Walter wafts us back and forth between 1962 and the present as he puts the puzzle of these lives together with the help of fully realized supporting characters (supply your own casting): the alcoholic ex-GI who shows up at Pasquale’s every year to write his novel but never gets past the first chapter; Deane’s idealistic assistant (Lisa Kudrow — oops, sorry) who can’t leave her job or her porn-addicted boyfriend; the “older” woman who seduces a young Pasquale; and the second-rate screenwriter with a series about cannibalism to pitch, called Donner. Walter skillfully weaves these story pieces into his flip-flopping plot.
Although the book shows dramatic, even melodramatic possibilities, it is not the least bit cheesy in the reading. It’s a pleasure to watch Walter wrap his story around such an iconic event as Cleopatra, and then follow through as he fleshes out the story with such care. He uses many devices to convey the story, including the ex-GI’s first chapter, the unedited first chapter of Deane’s autobiography, even the “treatment” of the Donner show, all of which contribute to the unfolding of these lives.
He also employs some flat out great writing, with a healthy dose of humor. A failed rock and roll singer who plays a big part in the story listens to some street musicians play and realizes, “The music these kids played was like a centuries-old cathedral; Pat’s lifework had all the lasting power and grace of a trailer.” He writes about Michael Deane’s plastic surgery that “Trying to picture what (he) looked like as a young man in Italy fifty years ago, based on his appearance now, is like standing on Wall Street trying to understand the topography of Manhattan Island before the Dutch arrived.”
It is rare to find a piece of popular fiction that is so good it’s a pleasure, not a guilty pleasure. Walter has engineered a book in which everyone doesn’t live happily ever after — they just live, in a fashion that makes for compelling reading.