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Reviewed by Yair Ben-Zvi
Be they joyous highs or abysmal lows I sometimes tend to waver between extremes. A book is either a piece of the crown called literature I treasure, or a waste of paper and glue (or in this newfangled age of flaming kindles or e-nooks, data and space) with not much room between. It reflects my upbringing, for good or ill. Something either didn't matter or it was all consuming. And this was day by day, minute by minute.
So overly wordy and personal delving prelude aside, let me say, without an ounce of guile or dishonesty, that Jess Walter is one of, if not the greatest storytellers working in the English writing world today. The first book of his I read, The Zero, was a truly Kafkaesque novel with touches of Joseph Heller, eminently readable and wonderfully dark. Citizen Vince was a charming and moving story about the potential redemption and even salvation of a man's soul in the voting booth circa the Carter/Reagan election years. Land of the Blind was a standard (it was an earlier work of Walter's) but touching meditation on the butterfly effect of the how the children we were in the past reverberate into the people we become as adults. And finally The Financial Lives of the Poets was melancholic and even downright somber, with a spot of hope that didn't feel forced or contrived.
It feels impossible and as a fledgling writer myself I'm caught between despairing envy and awe tinged admiration. But Walter hasn't missed a step in the all the years I've been reading him. In fact, Beautiful Ruins, has, in my mind, solidified him as one of the greater English language writers today. Blending genres, time periods, modes of expression ranging from the linearly plotted to the postmodern exploration via alternative methods of exposition, Walter showcases his remarkable ability to tightrope walk between the need to tell a story and the need to, well, make a point, or rather, attach thematic resonance to the story he's telling that reflects not only on the characters but on the human condition as a whole in its ever-changing but ever-constant trials on this Earth. In short, Mister Walter is one of the few 'real' writers filling pages today.
As to the nuts and bolts of Beautiful Ruins itself, it's a chimera work held together by a single thread bonding two characters, Dee and Pasquale, over decades. From the beginning of their relationship in Italy in the 1960s to its tragic yet positively life-affirming conclusion, we see the demise of old Hollywood and its creative golden age, the fallout of the second world war, as well as various other events, told through the personal and the global, ascensions and descents. Acting is touched on, as well as writing. The idea of performance and artifice inherent in both is juxtaposed beautifully, even hauntingly, with the ever present human struggle of trying to stay genuine in an increasingly appearance-obsessed and image-driven world. The book is depressing but filled to the brim with the idea that love not only conquers all but it is all. Its characters are deeply flawed but sympathetic, even understandable to an astounding degree. And through it all its somber meditations are balanced by a passionate earnestness for the craft of writing that can only be compared to having read a near perfect depiction of a human life, warts and all, with a redemptive emphasis on the potential in all of us to, simply, live beyond the boundaries we think are inescapably inherent in our lives.
In case I've been too coy, I'll just say read this book. Do it now. Even if you're not a regular reader, and if such is the case then thank you for coming this far, please read this book, even if it's the only book you read this month, this year, whatever increment of time most appeals to you, it's worth that, and so much more.
As a bit of postscript I've heard just recently that the novel is now in the process of being made into a movie. I'm of two minds. On the one hand if ever a story could move people on the big screen, it's this one, and in the same vein as Shawshank Redemption this could potentially turn people on to this wonderful story for years, for decades to come. But, if botched, the book could be cut down and ruined by Hollywood's unforgiving hands. Given Hollywood's odyssey in the book, I can't help but think Jess Walter would consider that situation worthy of a grin.
Out of 10: 9.3