This isn’t really going to be a review, because I’ve known Jess Walter for a long time and I’m hardly objective. (He used to be a reporter at a newspaper where I worked, and his wife was an editor. We became friends and started a book club together. First book: “Freedomland,” by Richard Price. Format: 10 minutes of book discussion, three hours of drinking). It’s more of an appreciation. And a bit of an apology for waiting so long to read his latest book. Sorry, Jess.
If you haven’t read “Beautiful Ruins,” you should. It’s really good.
Jess’s trajectory at The Spokesman-Review was impressive – he started answering the calls of high school coaches phoning in scores on Friday nights and by the time he left, had covered the FBI’s standoff with nut job Randy Weaver. When I first encountered Jess, he had published a book on Weaver, and was working with the now-infamous editor Judith Regan at Harper Collins, who arranged ghost writing gigs for Jess while he wrote novels. After a few mystery/crime-type books and winning a Poe award, Jess began writing “serious” novels.
I bring all this up for a few reasons. One is that at almost any stage of that career arc, most writers I know – myself included – would be pretty satisfied and called it good enough. Hotshot newspaper reporter? That’s pretty cool. Published author? I’ll take that. Job as a ghost writer? No shame in that. Successful mystery writer? What more could you want? Now he’s got a New York Times bestseller – one justifiably being compared to Garcia-Marquez – under his belt. Every time I think his career has hit its natural rhythm, he finds another gear. An Academy Award for best screen play is probably next and I’m not kidding even a little.
The other point is that somehow, amid this busy, productive, pay-check-earning career, Jess found a remarkable story telling voice. “Beautiful Ruins” with its multitude of characters (including some real people and other real-ish people), nationalities, formats (book chapters! screenplays!) and eras, impressed me over and over with Jess’s command, his confidence and his talent for filling in details without sacrificing pace. Somehow he learned to do this in Spokane.
“Beautiful Ruins” resists easy categorization, or even summary, but here goes: it’s the story of a young American actress who traveled to Italy for the filming of Cleopatra and met the young owner of a small, remote inn. They reunite 50 years – and the length of the novel – later. In between, the book is populated with rapacious move producers, fuck-up script writers, ne’er-do-well rock stars and drunk would-be authors. It’s told over seven decades, through chapters that dart back and forth across time and place, in Italy, London, Seattle and – somewhat bizarrely for me – the Idaho panhandle. Along the way we learn a lot about pitching stories in Hollywood and something about love, desire and duty.
I know it wasn’t easy – the book evidently took Jess 15 years to write – but damn, it reads like it was easy. If I’m honest with myself, I probably dragged my feet on reading “Beautiful Ruins” because I knew it would be great. And like standing at the edge of a precipice, there’s something a little intimidating about being that close to so much talent.
Books completed this year:
1, The Man in the High Castle (Dick)
2, Disgrace (Coetzee)
3, The Finkler Question (Jacobson)
4, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (Heinlein)
5, Beautiful Ruins (Walter)