Beautiful Ruins

9780061928178_p0_v2_s260x420book by Jess Walter

annotation by Maggie Downs

Both are balmy, sun-soaked locales. Both are surrounded by hills and ridges, switchbacks and shorelines. And both are situated on tenuous earth that threatens to break off and drift into the sea. But the similarities end there for Porto Vergogna, Italy, and Los Angeles, Calif., the two main settings of Jess Walter’s “Beautiful Ruins.”

One is a “rumor of a town,” inhabited mostly by anchovy fisherman and their families. The other is a glittering panorama of “green-and-glassed hills,” where “every table is sporting a sullen white screenwriter in glasses, every pair of glasses aimed at a MacPro laptop.” Together, the two places form the yin and yang of this novel, the opposing but complimentary forces that make this book work.

First there’s Porto Vergogna, a place where people arrive deliberately. “The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly — in a boat that motored into the cove, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pier.” (p1)

The few visitors who do come to Porto Vergogna and its one crumbling hotel are seeking more than simple rest and relaxation. They arrive for spiritual recovery and redemption. One of the characters, in describing what makes the location so special, says, “‘Here, on this coast, your walls were made by God — or volcanoes. You can’t tear them down. And you can’t build outside them. This town can never be more than a few barnacles on the rocks.’” (p63) The people here are constrained by the rules of a higher power.

On the other hand, Los Angeles, our second setting, is a place where religion has been co-opted by men. One character describes his pilgrimage to Los Angeles like this: “Weren’t movies his generation’s faith anyway — its true religion? Wasn’t the theater our temple, the one place we enter separately but emerge from two hours later with the same experience, same guided emotions, same morals? … Flickering pictures stitched in our minds that became our shared history, that taught us what to expect from life, that defined our values. What was that but a religion?” (p21)

Claire, one of the main characters, shows up for a job interview, only to be asked, “Claire, how much do you know about Scientology?” (p23)

Los Angeles is perplexing and illogical. One of the characters is perpetually confounded by the sprinklers that go off at 5 a.m. each day to water piles of rocks. “Before sunrise — before Guatemalan gardeners in dirty dinged lawn trucks, before Caribbeans come to cook, clean, and clothe, before Montessori, Pilates and Coffee Bean, before Benzes and BMWs nose onto palmed streets and the blue-toothed sharks resume their endless business — the gentrification of the American mind — there are the sprinklers: rising from the ground to spit-spray the northwest corner of Greater Los Angeles, airport to the hills, downtown to the beaches, the slumbering rubble of the entertainment regime.” (p15)

Also, unlike Porto Vergogna, this is not a place that requires deliberation, a place that necessitates the skill of experienced sailors over choppy waters. Rather, it is a city that zombies could navigate. “Her commute to the studio is a second-nature maze of cut-offs and lane changes, shoulders, commuter lanes, residential streets, alleys, bike lanes, and parking lots, devised to get her to the studio each day precisely eighteen minutes after she leaves her condo.” (p24)

The Italian city makes no promises. It is humble. “Porto Vergogna was a tight cluster of a dozen old whitewashed houses, an abandoned chapel, and the town’s only commercial interest — the tiny hotel and cafe owned by Pasquale’s family — all huddled like a herd of sleeping goats in a crease in the sheer cliffs … The hoteliers and restaurateurs to the north had their own pet name for the tiny village pinched in the vertical seam: baldracca culo — the whore’s crack.” (p2) There is just one place for lodging, The Hotel Adequate View, where expectations are lowered so they are forever exceeded.

In contrast, Los Angeles is a delicate house of cards, hope balanced on top of promises, all positioned on a stack of speculation and possibility. “To pitch here is to live. People pitch their kids into good schools, pitch offers on houses they can’t afford, and when they’re caught in the arms of the wrong person, pitch unlikely explanations. Hospitals pitch birthing centers, daycares pitch love, high schools pitch success, car dealerships pitch luxury, counselors self-esteem, masseuses happy endings, cemeteries eternal rest.” (p28)

In Los Angeles, those who follow their dreams almost certainly find a ruinous end: “He got caught in several traffic snarls and took the wrong exit. By the time the security guard shrugs and informs him that his destiny is at the other gate, he is 24 minutes late.” (p35)

In Porto Vergogna those dreams — no matter how frivolous or ridiculous — are met with support, even admiration. “With nothing but steep cliff faces to work with, Pasquale knew that a golf course was out of the question. But there was a natural shelf of three boulders near his hotel, and if he could level the tops and cantilever the rest, he thought he could build forms and pour enough concrete to connect the boulders into a flat rectangle and create — like a vision rising out of the rocky cliffs — a tennis court.” (p6)

There are two distinct story lines that run parallel throughout “Beautiful Ruins” and finally meet in the end, and neither one of those story lines could have existed without the other. The romance that blooms in Italy would not have happened without the Hollywood dreams; and had there been no ambition for fame and fortune, a hotelier in Italy would have never had a shot at love with an American actress. This was only made possible by Walter’s masterful use of two contrasting locations that formed a more dynamic, balanced ecosystem.

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