It is April 1962, Pasquale Tursi is trying to build a beach below his family’s pensione in Porto Vergogna, a sad little town, whose name meant ‘shame’, “a remnant from the founding of the village in the seventeenth century as a place for sailors and fishers to find women of… a certain moral and commercial flexibility”.
“Porto Vergogna was not so different from the quaint cliff-side towns of the Cinque Terre to the north, except that it was smaller, more remote, and not as picturesque. In fact, the hoteliers and restauranteurs to the north had their own pet name for the tiny village pinched into the vertical cliff seam: baldracca culo – the whore’s crack.”
But Pasquale, like his father before him, has faith: faith in his village, faith that tourists will come, faith in the future.
And one of them does, sort of. An American actress (from the movie Cleopatra no less) named Dee Moray has been sent by Michael Deane, a ‘special production assistant’ for 20th Century Fox, to stay at Pasquale’s hotel, as she is supposedly dying of cancer.
We then move to more recent times when we meet Claire Silver in Hollywood. She is the chief development assistant for “legendary film producer” Michael Deane. Ah, so this Deane fellow has apparently come very far, although we have yet to meet him. We do know, however, that he doesn’t seem to think much of Claire, and Claire doesn’t think very much of her job (and probably him). Claire’s heading into the office for Wild Pitch Fridays, the last Friday of the month set aside for pitches from “every burned-out, played-out has-been and never-was in town”.
And one of those never-was-es is Shane Wheeler, not quite thirty, from Beaverton, Oregon. His life is a bit of a sad one – unemployed, soon to be divorced, lives with his parents, his student loans are due, and the project he has worked on for six years, a book of linked short stories, has just been rejected by his agent. Oh and his grand story idea has cannibalism.
He’s late for his appointment, and while waiting outside Claire’s office meets an old man in his seventies holding a Michael Deane business card. And with the help of Shane (who speaks some Italian – perhaps not such a loser after all?), tells Claire about “L’attimo che dura per sempre” or ‘the moment that lasts forever’ and how he is looking for Dee Moray and needs Deane’s help.
“Something about the name affects her, too – a crush of romantic recognition, those words, moment and forever – as if she can feel fifty years of an ache that lies dormant in her, too, maybe lies dormant in everyone until it’s cracked open like this – and so weighted is this moment she has to look to the ground or else feel the tears burn her own eyes, and at that moment Claire glances at Shane, and sees that he must feel it, too, the name hanging in the air for just a moment… among the three of them… and then floating to the floor like a falling leaf, the Italian watching it settle, Claire guessing, hoping, praying the old Italian will say the name once again, more quietly this time – to underline its importance, the way it’s so often done in scripts – but he doesn’t do this. He just stares at the floor, where the name has fallen, and it occurs to Claire Silver that she’s seen too goddamn many movies.”
And there it is. At the close of the second chapter, the paragraph that draws me into this story. The words and sentences that make the rest of this book so much more captivating. You want to know – what happened to Dee? Will Pasquale meet her again?
And Jess Walter takes us there, along a bit of a meandering – but entertaining – route.
This book is full of flawed characters – some would call them losers. Shane is just one example (his mother hasnt stopped providing him with a clothing allowance!). Claire’s boyfriend is of a slightly different breed – he’s a porn and stripper addict. And Michael Deane is perhaps the most classic. Ageing away, super-botoxed, stuck in a rut in the movie business and instead making horrendously bad reality TV series. Then there is Pat, a former rocker, whom we meet before he flies to Scotland, somehow persuaded to do some shows there by this kid.
It’s a lively read that shuffles between present day and 1960s, among Italy, Hollywood and the Pacific Northwest, lingering a little on the sentimental, but also surprising us with a variety of storytelling methods (excerpts from an unfinished novel, pages from Michael Deane’s unpublished memoir) and a rather large cast (Richard Burton pops up, we meet Dee Moray’s son, then there’s an alcoholic writer who’s usually Pasquale’s hotel’s only guest – that’s everyone… I think). The fun is in watching how the threads come together. And quite satisfyingly so.
Beautiful Ruins is a refreshing read that is fully deserving of all the praise it’s already received. I had such a great time with this book and am looking forward to reading more from Jess Walter.
I received this book for review from the publisher and TLC Book Tours.
Check out the rest of the stops on the tour!
Tuesday, April 2nd: The Blog of Lit Wits
Wednesday, April 3rd: Olduvai Reads
Thursday, April 4th: Peppermint PhD
Friday, April 5th: Tiffany’s Bookshelf
Monday, April 8th: As I turn the pages
Tuesday, April 9th: Book Dilettante
Wednesday, April 10th: Great Imaginations
Thursday, April 11th: BookNAround
Friday, April 12th: 5 Minutes For Books
Saturday, April 13th: Doing Dewey
Tuesday, April 16th: Tina’s Book Reviews
Wednesday, April 17th: Speaking of Books
Thursday, April 18th: she treads softly
Jess Walter is the author of six novels, including the national bestseller The Financial Lives of the Poets, the National Book Award finalist The Zero, and Citizen Vince, winner of the Edgar Award for best novel. His collection of short fiction, We Live in Water, has just been published by Harper Perennial. He lives in Spokane, Washington.
Over Tumbled Graves (2001)
The Land of the Blind (2003)
Citizen Vince (2005)
The Zero (2006)
The Financial Lives of the Poets (2009)
Beautiful Ruins (2012)
Short stories and Short Story Collections
“Bleacher Couch Man” (2011) [included in ESPN The Magazine’s Fiction Issue]
“Big Man” (2012)
“Wolf and the Wild” (2012)
“Love Song#79” (2012)
Don’t Eat Cat (2012)
We Live in Water: Stories (2013)
Every Knee Shall Bow (1995) (re-released as Ruby Ridge: The Truth and Tragedy of the Randy Weaver Family in 2002)
In Contempt (co-authored with Christopher Darden) (1996)