Jess Walter: Beautiful Ruins (HarperCollins, 2012)

[F]issures have appeared in this philosophy – faith proving to be not nearly enough – and it was in the run-up to his divorce that his soon-to-be ex-wife (So tired of your shit, Shane) dropped a bombshell: the Bible phrase he and his father endlessly quoted, “act as if ye have faith…,” never actually appears in the Bible. Rather, as far as she could tell, it came from the closing argument given by the Paul Newman character in the film The Verdict.

Everyone loved this book. The New York Times called it a “surprising and witty novel of social criticism that …offers so much more than just entertainment in terms of scope, emotional range and formalist invention.” NPR said, “The verdict here is an emotionally satisfying ‘snap.'” The Washington Post praises the “lively prose, sharp transitions and an entertaining cast of characters” that “delicately… suggests a difference between public ruins and private memory.”

I wanted to love this book, since I so loved Walter’s The Financial Lives of the Poets.

But, no. Maybe it was the cover illustration, but all I could think of was a more sophisticated, more literary version of Sidney Sheldon’s The Other Side of Midnight which someone a lifetime ago pawned off on me as a good book.

No, come on, it’s not that bad. It’s quite good, in fact. Walter does have some great characters and he gets them into intertwined, emotionally challenging situations. It’s a bit like a wind-up alarm clock, where the individual threads twist tighter and tighter around each other, then spring loose at the perfect moment. Despite the seven major plot threads and numerous time jumps along each of those threads, I was never left feeling confused about who or when I was reading about. He incorporates several accessory media pieces – a chapter of a character’s novel, another character’s play, yet another’s memoir, as well as songs and several movie treatments. Everything relates to everything else quite cleverly. It’s extremely well-done. It’s admirable.

I just didn’t… care.

Some characters started out strong for me – Shane, disillusioned by writing (no, really?), and Claire, by movies, the fields they have pursued all of their, what, 20-something years, which is why they faded out so quickly. How disillusioned can a 27-year-old be? But in their introductions was a hint of the bite I so loved in Poets. It wasn’t sustained, though, and they quickly turned into the least memorable characters. Pasquale Tursi, on the other hand, grew on me over time, and became my favorite character. But even he followed a predictable path, as does the entire book, once you get past the cowboy cannibal movie.

There’s a lot of good stuff in the book: appearances vs. reality, the hundreds of ways we fool ourselves into believing our own narrative (I’m big on narratives lately), and always that sense that each character is, as Steve Almond puts it, “forced up against her deepest fears and/or desires.” But none of it really mattered to me; I kept reading because I kept thinking it’d explode on the next page, but it never did. And, though I’m probably mistaken, I have some doubts about some of the writing on the sentence level – often enough that I noticed, but not enough to be an annoyance.

In the end, I recognize what people are talking about; I just don’t feel it. I’ve never been that big on Hollywood stories, and the whole Liz Taylor fascination mystified me (to me, she only became great when she stood up for people with AIDS before it was cool to do so). But I’m still looking forward to Walter’s short story collection, because I do have faith.

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One response to “Jess Walter: Beautiful Ruins (HarperCollins, 2012)

  1. Pingback: Changing the Way I Read | A Just Recompense

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