Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Beautiful Ruins & One Last Thing Before I Go

So often I come across books by happy little accidents. While browsing through a used bookstore, a book with an interesting cover or with a synopsis on the back or flap will grab my attention. It is one of the most thrilling things to find a novel I've never heard of, even better if it's by a writer new to me. Many of my favorite books have come to me this way.

Occasionally, though, there are those novels that I know are coming out and I look forward to for months. Jonathan Tropper's One Last Thing Before I Go is one such book. I've read everything by Tropper and have been wildly entertained by all of them. Hearing that he had a new one on the way was like hearing that a favorite relative would be visiting for Thanksgiving. Conversely, Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter was one of those I happened on in the bookstore. It was new at the time and the cover was so striking that it drew me in. Since its release and before my purchasing it, I'd read about it and seen some great reviews, so my interest was piqued. I haven't read anything else by Walter, but I look forward now to delving into his other work. And I'm sure I'll look forward to his forthcoming novels as well.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (HarperCollins 2012) is a multi-generational story that takes us back and forth between 1962 and the present day. We are transported from the rocky coast of Italy to Hollywood, from Seattle to Idaho to London. Pasquale Tursi is the heir to a failing hotel in a failing fishing village called Porto Vergogna near Genoa. His dream for his hotel, which his father named The Adequate View after a conversation with the American war novelist Alvis Bender, is to attract Americans, and to that end he is building a beach on his rocky outcrop and planning a tennis court that will cantilever out over the water. His dream comes partially true when a young American actress, Dee Moray, shows up from Rome while on hiatus from the filming of Cleopatra. Her arrival sparks something within Pasquale and visits upon the poor Italian hotelier a host of characters including weaselly Hollywood publicist Michael Deane, a couple of thugs from nearby Portovenere and Richard Burton. But her arrival also brings something else to Pasquale: hope. He learns something of himself and his dreams in his conversations with her, and in the drama that unfolds.

Present day Hollywood shows us a Michael Deane who has become successful many times over, lost it all at times, and rebounded quite well. When Pasquale Tursi shows up, older now and searching for a lost love, he is given the chance to atone for sins from decades before. Whether he takes the opportunity is a matter of character and momentum built up from so many years in a shallow and crass business. The inclusion of Dee Moray's son, and the revelation of the identity of his father, is another turn in a novel full of intricate plot twists.

Where Beautiful Ruins spans 50 years and shows us how people's lives, hopes and dreams will change – or stay the same – within such time, One Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan Tropper (Dutton 2012), spans one week in the life of Drew Silver. Silver, as he's known, is the one-time drummer from a one-hit-wonder band called the Bent Daisies. We meet him just before his ex-wife is to be remarried and just before he finds out he may die at any moment. Sound depressing? The talent of Tropper is that he can find the humor in the most mundane, and most frightening, occurrences in life. There is plenty of sadness and despair, some tears, and yet many moments of laughing out loud.

Silver lives in The Versailles, a long-term efficiency hotel populated by divorced, middle-aged men who see, or don't see, their kids intermittently, and who spend much of their time around the hotel's pool ogling young women visiting from the nearby college. Silver's own daughter is college-age, and long absent from Silver's life, yet determined to ease herself back in with the news of Silver's impending demise. His ex-wife's fiancee is the surgeon who diagnoses Silver's condition, and who ironically wants to save the life of the man who is a constant wedge in his relationship.

There are ruins in both books that are not man-made monoliths decaying from time and wear of the elements, but are the very lives and relationships of their characters. Pasquale Tursi's dreams are only partially realized, Drew Silver's were realized for a fleeing moment and may have cost him his family, if not his life. Dee Moray finds and loses love several times, while Michael Deane's life is merely a thin sheen of fame and fortune.

We all know pain, we all know loss and all of our dreams seem unreachable at different moments in our lives. It's in how we handle such adversity and longing, and even successes, that makes our lives into beautiful monuments or beautiful ruins. Both of these writers – Tropper and Walter – are adept at capturing the heartbreak and euphoria, and, even more difficult, they do so with a gentle, easy humor.