Jess Walter’s Fantastic Beautiful Ruins
by Weston Cutter
The first thing I’d ever read by Jess Walter was his story “Thief” in Harper’s from maybe four months back—I read the thing lying on the couch in my wife’s office before we went out somewhere that night, took the story down fast and remember just feeling spun for the rest of the night by the sneaky ease of the thing—it’s a story about someone in a guy’s family stealing from the huge jug he puts his change in as a way to save for vacations, and there’s a twist, and, sure, the story itself was great, and the twist was great, but there was this almost shocking ease to the story, how it just unspooled with no noticeable effort. The analog might be that, in bicycling, the best components move with the least friction—a set of real high end hubs, for instance, will allow a wheel to spin for a long time with almost no effort. I can attest to how good it feels to clean and regrease and repack a set of hubs, allowing them to rolls incredibly freely and smoothly, so I can only imagine how it feels to be Jess Walter, whose new novel Beautiful Ruins is a book of such shocking smoothness and ease I’m sort of dumbstruck by the thing.
You’ve heard of Walter before, in all likelihood: his best known novel (at least among the folks I know), The Financial Lives of Poets, was seemingly everywhere when it was released in ’09, and his The Zero was a finalist for the National Book Award. Maybe he’s better known than I know, but I’m sort of amazed that this book hasn’t been called, by everyone, one of summer’s big best books—it’s right up there, for me, with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Crumpton’s The Art of Intelligence (about which more soon). Maybe it’s gotten more attention than I know, and I simply haven’t been paying enough attention.
Regardless, among the following are compelling reasons you should read Beautiful Ruins promptly: 1) you want a book which toggles back and forth between the past and present, the past in this case going back as far as 1962 and the present set in California, or 2) you want a book which focuses, sort of, on movies—the 1962 Beautiful Ruins jumps back to is in Italy, during the filming of Cleopatra, the first Liz Taylor/Richard Burton film (and the one on the set of which they first fell in love), or 3) you want a book which features characters cast in such vividity one feels totally fine, for instance, loathing the dickhead stripper-patronizing, internet-porn-obsessive boyfriend of one of the main characters, because this is a book in which it’s safe to loathe characters because they feel hugely human and real, and so, as in life, you know you can loathe or hate the character on one page but will likely change your mind soon enough. Actually, forget the numbering: character in Beautiful Ruins is everything: there is Pasquale, a young Italian who runs an inn in Porto Vergogna, a town that could/should be the sixth of Cinque Terre (thus forcing a name change, but whatever), and there is Dee Myers who shows up at Pasquale’s family’s inn (which inn is named: The Adequate View) during the book’s first few pages, sick and in need of rest and rehab, and there is Michael Deane, a movie producer who was involved in getting Dee to Porto Vergogna but who we meet in the present as an aged but legendary producer with an assistant named Claire, she of the beefcakey stripper-loving boyfriend. There are plenty more—specifically Pat Bender, Alvis Bender, and Shane Wheeler—and I swear that the stories of each become so moving and compelling that the book, which features chapters which stagger through time, will incense you in good ways, just that it prevents you from simply tearing through, trying to track each character’s story instead of sitting back and tracing the larger tapestry of stories and story they together weave.
Here’s what Walter’s said the book’s at least somewhat about, according to the press packet: “…a story about fame and how we all endeavor now to live our lives like movie stars, like celebrities, each of us an eager inner publicist managing our careers and our romances and our fragile self-images (our Facebook pages and Linked-In profiles).” Maybe I’m dim or have missed something, but I don’t feel like I often read something by a book’s author directly addressing what the book’s agenda might be, or it’s message, or its intent. I say that full of praise for Walter for saying/writing what he did: I think we each like to graft what we believe might be something like meaning onto our favorite books, but those things don’t often hold or add up, at least not in any larger way than the oldest most cliched take-aways (for instance: power currupts, the lies we tell ourselves undo us, certain emotional experiences sear us permanently; try this on your own favorite novel). But what charges what Walter wrote in that press kit, what makes Beautiful Ruins more than just a meditative novel which considers the various shades and darknesses of how we manage our lives and selves, is the book’s just fucking exquisite final chapter, a chapter which just astonishes in its wide-lens tracking of all the stories tracked in the book, a chapter which, to at least this reader, feels more than a little like some parts of the best of GGMarquez (especially Love in the Time of Cholera, for reasons you’d be a fool to want more detail regarding) in its whirling omnipotence, its god-view of humans and their urges and needs. There was, in a recent New Yorker, a Louis Menand review of the latest James Joyce bio, and you should just go read the whole article, but what Menand establishes in ways I’ve never wtnessed before is that Joyce was hellbent on celebrating the day-to-day, the casual miracle of living and loving and dying and hurting (Menand takes 6 pages to establish this stuff–you really should go read it), and maybe it’s just that I read Beautiful Ruins less than a week after reading the Menand article, but the zinging magnificence of Jess Walter’s latest novel feels exactly of a piece with what Menand wrote of Joyce: Walter’s fantastic final chapter begins with a character saying This is a love story, a line which is questioned almost immediately in the text: But, really, what isn’t? If this book hits you as I imagine it’ll hit all of us, and as it certainly hit me, the only answer possible to that question is: nothing, nothing is not a love story, and every love story’s full of beauty and chaos and surprise. Seriously: you just have to read this book, as soon as possible.