On Jess Walter’s “Beautiful Ruins”

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I grew up on Old Hollywood movies. In the afternoons, my grandfather would sit me in front of the TV, or the huge screen he’d made himself out of fabric (he used to be an upholsterer), and on the video player or the projector he’d put on Gone with the Wind, or The Last Time I Saw Paris, or Casablanca, or Gigi. They rose up grand in front of me, flickering, the women always in that soft light, their eyes flashing or gleaming. My grandfather would call me little Elizabeth Taylor, for my dark hair, and the beauty mark like hers, on my cheek.

Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walters (Harper Perennial, 2013) opens like a movie, the flickering, soaring moment of a dying American actress, beautiful enough to be written into light and memory and love in an instant, but not too beautiful as to be impossible – arriving by boat in the scrawny Porto Vergogna, the Port of Shame, witnessed by the ardent dreamer Pasquale Tursi, as he’s set about his fool’s errand of building a beach for his hotel.

You can read that, you can just see it now – imagine the score (Ennio Morricone, of course), maybe even the director (Roberto Benigni? But he should direct everything, I think.) Of course you can, because if you love the movies, the grandness of them, there are certain things that you know by heart even before you see them. Call them tropes or clichés, they’re the archetypes of our modern mythology, our collective dreaming. So I won’t even go into the plot, which jumps from the Golden Age of Hollywood and the filming of the notorious Cleopatra, with a marvelous cameo by Richard Burton, to the grit and sleaze and tinseled cynicism of modern-day Hollywood, to the memories of a World War II veteran and dogged writer, to the grime of a Hollywood producer’s tell-all memoir. You can read all about that in any other review, or better still, read the book yourself, because what got into me, what wrote it into me, was its heart, the sheer force of its will, which is what gives its audacity – its melding of genre and trope and inventiveness and humor and dark, dark hurt – its power, its final triumph. I want to tell you what no one told me about this book before I read it – what it does.

Because in that moment, with the strings swelling to crescendo in your mind as you read it, as Dee Moray the beautiful (but not too beautiful) American actress steps off the boat and onto the shore, Walter writes how Pasquale, the dreamer and humble lover, fell in love “Not so much with the woman, but with the moment”.

And that’s the match-strike of the book, what sets us off in resonance with it. Because the people filling its pages, the people filling our lives, are all sore, and a little old, and a little stupid. None of them quite as beautiful as in those golden moments, those stills written into our sight forever, when the outlines of everything are written golden onto our retinas. We’re sore, and imperfect. But gorgeous too, in a moment and so forever.

One of the most poignant images in the book is that of a small hidden cave, the walls bejeweled with paintings – portraits — done by a traveling German soldier. Portraits done by memory and with a loving and longing hand, abandoned in the little cave in the port of shame.

Everyone in Walter’s book is real, achingly real, because they’re tropes and they’re not, at once grand and pedestrian. They’re like that gilded friend from high school, whose hair you held back while they threw up, whose zits you advised on in the school bathroom, but who is also written into your memory with the light on the snow that year, with snow gleaming starry in their hair, eternal and luminous, in your memory and everything you might write or paint or sing of them.

I took the book with me on my honeymoon to Greece. My husband had forgotten to pack something to read and so grabbed it and started it as well. We squabbled over it through the trip, for bathroom reading, for beach lounging, for the plane trips. How far have you read? Who do you like best so far? Darling there’s something in this chapter that might be triggering, just a heads up.

We were in Corfu, in a tiny hotel room overlooking the Ionian, with a wrought iron balcony and music rising up from the streets and bougainvillea, and the sea gleaming with the lights from the bay, and bus rides along the coast roads past crumbling villas and vistas of endless blue and gold, gleaming royally in the sun that went to our hearts like love there. Everywhere things we’d read of in books, in poetry, seen in movies. And the kind of love that strains at the insides of your skin, there is so much of it, it fills you so with light. And we were tired from a hellish few months, and we were sore, and both struggling with our writing, both feeling a little ugly, a little ragged. But we each have a picture of the other from that trip that is what was real, what will last, what really was – him in a white cotton shirt on the boat to Paros, looking out at the sea like Odysseus, gorgeous and mine, and me with my hair blown back and gilded in the sun by the sea in Corfu, laughing and golden.

And this book we shared, that had him waking me up at 3am when he’d finished it just to tell me, that had him stay up till dawn writing, that had me sobbing as I finished it the next day on the plane to Santorini, shook us to the heart, because it was it, our lives, beautiful and sore and a little broken, but lovelier than all imagining. Because Walter, writing of the exquisite but squandered ingénue Dee Moray, and her son who wanders and wastes in the throes of addiction and depression, the World War II veteran who writes the same chapter every year, the lover and hotelier who wants to build a tennis court for his hotel on the sea, Richard Burton careering through the Cinque Terre slurring Shakespeare at the fishermen, captures the raw stuff of art, the things we see in each other and ourselves that stay, the grit in the pearl, to emerge luminous.

Those are the beautiful ruins. Dee Moray’s picture laughing with Elizabeth Taylor on the set of one of the most historic and notorious films in cinema legend, her son turning the grime of his life to something endlessly poignant and pure, through love. The German soldier and his portraits, Pasquale and his dreams that stay alive even beyond him. Because though we’re never as articulate, as purely beautiful as what makes it to the screen, what’s written in light, and even though we’re brief in the world, are only young a little while, can only live and love so much, we are still and always such raw, real stuff as dreams are made on.