BEAUTIFUL RUINS, by Jess Walter. Harper, 337 pp., $25.99.
Jess Walter's new novel opens in 1962, with a beautiful young actress disembarking at a backward Italian fishing village, a refugee from the disastrous shoot of Joseph Mankiewicz's "Cleopatra" in Rome. No, it's not Elizabeth Taylor. But this fictional actress, named Dee Moray and cast as the Egyptian queen's lady in waiting, has had her own romantic travails on set and is reeling with the news that she may be dying of stomach cancer.
Watching Moray's arrival is Pasquale Tursi, the likable young proprietor of the town's only inn, a former whorehouse dubbed the Hotel Adequate View. Tursi has elaborate dreams of transforming Porto Vergogna ("Port of Shame") into a world-class resort, though it is just "a tight cluster" of dwellings "all huddled liked a herd of sleeping goats in a crease in the sheer cliffs." Despite Pasquale's questionable command of the English language ("it was unpredictable, like a crossbred dog"), he forms a mysterious bond with his tragic guest -- "something implicit, the hum of attraction and anticipation."
From this opening scene, "Beautiful Ruins" charts a course that follows Dee, Pasquale and a handful of characters across the decades to Florence, Edinburgh, Seattle and rural Idaho, tracing their ambitions, disappointments and fleeting happiness en route. We'll meet World War II vet Alvis Bender, a "failed writer but successful drunk" and a regular at the Hotel Adequate View since 1952, whose only completed chapter Dee finds in her room and reads. In contemporary Hollywood, we'll meet the aging producer Michael Deane, who got his start on "Cleopatra," peddling Liz and Dick's romance to the ravenous press, and now reduced to cranking out sleazy reality TV shows and struggling to preserve his youth. (He's had so many cosmetic procedures, Walter writes, that "trying to picture what Michael Deane looked like as a young man in Italy fifty years ago, based on his appearance now, is like standing on Wall Street trying to understand the topography of Manhattan Island before the Dutch arrived.") Even "Cleopatra" leading man Richard Burton makes a riotous cameo, foulmouthed and full of drink and blustery Welsh charm. "I knew she was married," he tells Pasquale about his affair with Liz, "and more to the point, she's a bloody soul-eater, but I'm not made of steel either."
In its disjointed chronology and its freewheeling scope, "Beautiful Ruins" invites comparison with Jennifer Egan's 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner, "A Visit From the Goon Squad," though you'll find no PowerPoint presentations here -- just fragments of Bender's novel and Deane's memoir, plus an autobiographical play and a totally bonkers movie pitch about the Donner Party. As you may have guessed by now, Walter -- author of "The Financial Lives of the Poets" and the National Book Award finalist "The Zero," among others -- is a very, very funny writer and can do Hollywood satire with the best of them. But this is also a novel with a live, beating heart, full of sympathy for its characters and a gut wisdom about "all those lovely wrecked lives." You'll want to explore these "Ruins."