Sunday, May 11, 2014

"... already a beautiful ruin -- was mesmerizing."

As I was listening to Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins, I was trying to figure out how it got on my radar.  I don't think it was its literary hotness -- come to think of it, I'm not sure I've ever seen the actual book in the library (our 55 copies are all checked out). Regardless, I am so glad it did ... end up on my book radar. This was a wonderful book; deliciously suspenseful, surprising, brilliantly realized setting, incredibly poignant and absolutely hilarious. Good bones to start with, that becomes a literary miracle when you add the beyond- talented narrator.

It's 1962 in the Cinque Terre backwater of Porto Vergogna. Accessible only by sea, Porto Vergogna will never be the tourist destination that the other towns are, beautifully situated on the Italian Riviera. (The first of many beautiful ruins in this novel.) Young Pasquale Tursi is trying to make a go of his family's pensione, the Hotel Adequate View, shortly after the death of his father, when a beautiful American woman motors up to the dock. This is Dee Moray, hustled off the set of the not-yet-notorious American motion picture, Cleopatra (for reasons that will be explained) by an ambitious Hollywood publicist by the name of Michael Deane. For Pasquale, it's love at first sight. For Deane, it's the beginning of a career. For Dee, well ... Dee believes she has stomach cancer.

It's 2012, and the "Deane of Hollywood" is holding his monthly "Wild Pitch Friday," where anyone with a crazy idea for a movie has a chance to pitch it ("So there's this guy ...") to Deane's development assistant. Two men show up for the last appointment of the day -- a wannabe screenwriter named Shane Wheeler here to pitch Donner! (yes, a thriller about the Donner Party) and an elderly Italian gentleman without much English. It's Pasquale Tursi, carrying an old business card of Michael Deane's, in search of Dee Moray.

And if that doesn't capture you, well you are made of stone (and clearly prefer nonfiction). Just describing it, makes me feel the delighted way I felt while listening. This tour de force includes the first (and only) chapter of a World War II novel written by a blocked veteran and annual visitor to the Adequate View (also responsible for naming the hotel), Wheeler's Donner! pitch, the introductory chapter of Deane's memoir where he acidly describes his role in the events of 1962, Pasquale's encounters with Richard Burton, a jaunt to the Edinburgh Festival in the 1990s and the modern play that resulted, a road trip into the wilds of Idaho (with parallels to the Donner's trek), and several scenic walks along the cliffs of the Cinque Terre, with glimpses of some frescoes hidden inside an abandoned machine-gun pillbox.

The beautiful ruins are many -- Porto Vergogna, Burton, Cleopatra, the aged Dee and Pasquale, and others that would spoil the story -- but Walter never forces the metaphor. And aside from the wicked humor he brings to the many foibles of his characters, he's really a sentimentalist. It's very important from the outset (once you realize that the story takes place in both time frames) that Pasquale find out what happened to Dee. Love takes many forms in this novel and Walter ensures that all forms are worth having, are worth pursuing. Love is also a beautiful ruin.

Beautiful Ruins goes from terrific to something out of this world in its audio version. The narrator, Edoardo Ballerini (known to me, but up until now, never heard by me), is simply outstanding. (I'm not the only person who thinks this: Ballerini won the Best Solo Narration - Male at the 2013 Audies.) With a pleasing baritone, he reads in the third person with variety and plenty of sensitivity where appropriate and irony when necessary. His Italian sounds natural, and he handles the many accents the novel requires with ease and authenticity. Worth nothing is the difference he produces between the Italians speaking "Italian" (i.e., Italian-accented English) and the "Italian" of the English-speaking characters.

The characterizations are delightful -- each unique, consistent and sounding like real people. Ballerini's Richard Burton has that Welsh-lilt growl, Deane is full of false bonhomie and malice, Shane Wheeler is hilariously dim, Dee a whisperer with a touch of steel, and Pasquale suitably innocent and heroic. I actually didn't want this to end.

But end it does (satisfyingly conclusive) and a brief interview with Walter follows. He answers the usual questions about where the book came from with fascinating detail, but delightfully adds a bit about his own failed attempt to narrate the novel (I'm not sure he actually auditioned) using a Sean Connery-infused accent for the story's Italians. Having earlier narrated one of his own books, he says memorably, "Man, I'd like to punch this author right in the mouth." Walter also reads the book's three epigraphs -- which is great -- except that someone from the publisher has just read them. It makes for a weird beginning, from which we quickly recover. My post title is the third epigraph, and the subject is Richard Burton.

Of course, what this novel really makes me want is another trip to Italy and a walk through the Cinque Terre. For the moment, I guess I'll have to settle for another read from Edoardo Ballerini.

[The cover image is the town of Manarola, so I didn't think we needed another picture of the Cinque Terre. Instead we have Liz and Dick, in a cropped scene shot from the Cleopatra trailer (which I have never seen), retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
Narrated by Edoardo Ballerini
Recorded Books, 2012.  12:53

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