Tuesday, February 12, 2013

And a Bag of Chips

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter has it all.  It starts off with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor on the set of "Cleopatra" in the 1960s.  Soon one of the extras has to leave the set, to seek quiet in the seaside village of Porto Vergogna in Italy.  There, a young man, Pasquale, is realizing that he is the only person under 40 left living in the dying town.  Fast forward 50 years, and there is Shane, a young screenwriter-want-to-be who is trying to sell a story about the Donner Party, and Pat, a former one hit wonder who is trying to find one more hit.  Then slip back to Italy during World War II, and the scars that it left on all involved.  And there you have Beautiful Ruins.

The story is told through letters, discarded memoirs, chapters of books that never got published, scenes from plays, translations, flash backs, and flash forwards.  The same characters reappear from time to time, but frequently enough that you remember who everyone is.  In this way, Beautiful Ruins is similar to A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, except that Walters actually tells the reader what year we are in. 

The Pat storyline also is similar to a story in AVFTGS.  Pat is a musician in his 40s, who found some recognition as a singer in a band 20 years earlier.  He hasn't given up, but the crowds have stopped appearing, and may even wonder if he is still alive, if they think of him at all.  His self proclaimed life theme is "There must be some mistake; I was supposed to be bigger than this."  Pat also brings to mind Nik Worth from Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta.  In all of these books, there is a person who found some degree of fame as a musician in his 20s.  Even though he found a little fame, he didn't get as much as he thought he should have.  He feels that the public never really "got" him, even though he has been brilliant all along.  He is certain that his latest works are his best, if only someone would be willing to listen.  And then it happens, or maybe it doesn't.  But the hope is there.  Can a great musician find true critical acclaim and commercial success after turning 40?  Or 50?   It's a rock and roll fairy tale.  And we love it.  AVFTGS won the Pulitzer, and all three books, AVFTGS, Stone Arabia, and Beautiful Ruins were NYT Notables.

I also liked the relationship between Pasquale and the extra who left the Cleopatra set.  They speak different languages, but they are more honest with each other than they could have been with someone who they thought understood them.  Pasquale, as the manager and owner of the Hotel Adequate View, is in awe of any American who will come to his small village, and is especially taken with this beautiful woman.  Together they explore a bunker that was used by soldiers in World War II.  The bunker could have been left behind by a character from Mark Helprin's A Soldier of the Great War.  Helprin's Italy of World War I is not so different from Walter's Italy of World War II.

One thing that worked well in Beautiful Ruins was the final chapter, where the reader learns what happened to most, if not all, of the characters mentioned throughout the many eras of the book.  It could have been too contrived, but Walters lays out all the finales like he is reporting data, so it feels true.

The lessons in Beautiful Ruins are plentiful.  Do the right thing.  Live in the present.  Love the one you're with.  Accept faults in others.  Forgive.  Don't exploit.  For some reason, I think because I was so busy, it took me longer than it should have to get caught up in the stories.  I think that this is one that I'd like to read again.  It's a great novel that has something for everyone. 

Next up:  Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles by Ron Currie, Jr.

Still Listening to:  Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

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