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Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter

Harper, June 12, 2012

No way did I intend on purchasing the novel without innate proof of its worthiness. Reviews are often misleading. Furthermore, blurbs trumpeting advance praise, even when the cheers come attributed to authors whom I admire, tread the line of an elite inner-circle quid pro quo—colleagues supporting colleagues, granting exclusive sneak peeks in exchange for jubilation when they, themselves, publish their own hoped-for bestseller. I do not mean to disparage the integrity of the quoted; sincerity is not the issue. I just feel more comfortable with less devout recommendations, if for no other reason than to curb lofty expectations. Never having read anything written by this Jess Walter fellow, he was the only person qualified to convince me to invest in his most recent effort.

On July 18, 2012, Walter got his chance. I attended a signing at Book Soup in West Hollywood, putting us face-to-face for his best shot at an unwitting pitch. The challenge was on.

Impress me, Mr. Author Man. Convince me your fiction deserves my time and money.

Like Miss Almira Gulch riding her bike with wicked determination in The Wizard of Oz, I peddled my two-wheeler on a mission along the Sunset Strip. Whether I might bring something home in my tote at the end of the day, however, remained a long shot.

She smiled. “I think so, too. I know I felt that way. For years. It was as if I was a character in a movie and the real action was about to start at any minute. But I think some people wait forever, and only at the end of their lives do they realize that their life has happened while they were waiting for it to start. Do you know what I mean, Pasquale?”

Maybe twenty-five metal folding chairs cramped the front section of the prominent indie retailer, facing an empty podium. I selected a seat in the mid-section, as we, the audience, anticipated the arrival of our scheduled speaker. Others sat with their copies of Beautiful Ruins at the ready, suggesting the group comprised an approving crowd with one obvious exception. My empty hands set me apart for what I was: an interloper, the lone holdout.

Walter stepped behind the lectern with a casual air. Neither imposing nor slight, the man fit the space perfectly, filling the gap before us the way a hardcover slips between neighboring tomes on a shelf and makes the row at once replete. He introduced himself and read the obligatory passage from his novel, choosing the opening pages, which immediately established a bittersweet tone of hope, glamour, and duty.

Twenty meters away, Pasquale Tursi watched the arrival of the woman as if in a dream. Or rather, he would think later, a dream’s opposite: a burst of clarity after a lifetime of sleep.

The guest then deviated from formalities and comically responded to questions posed to him earlier via email by a young girl, as part of her school assignment. His witty replies to the student’s innocuous inquisition were a highlight and a whole lot more cheeky than the staid answers that she probably received. Walter next recounted how he struck a relationship toward the start of his career with legendary writer Kurt Vonnegut. A Q&A session opened up the dialogue to the room and returned attention to his current novel, which he planned to sign at the end of the reception. I clung to every word.

Overcome by excitement, I snatched a copy of the novel, stood in line to request an autograph, and lavished the author with a stream of compliments. Well … not exactly. The preceding scenario epitomizes a logical conclusion to the story. The fact is I quietly exited the store with my hands as empty as I had arrived.

The bike ride home left me doused and reflective. I regarded myself as an arrogant ass. Walter was the real deal, and I was my own secret foe. An unjust passive-aggressive confrontation had no business getting thrust upon someone so astute, humble, and talented.

Then she smiled, and in that instant, if such a thing were possible, Pasquale fell in love, and he would remain in love for the rest of his life—not so much with the woman, whom he didn’t even know, but with the moment.

Two summers have since come and gone, and the novel occupies a prominent spot on my bookshelf. The aqua marine, sun-drenched coastal Italian village depicted on the cover is a mini-escape at every glance. Flashes remind me of the characters, the prose, the locales, and the emotions that yielded a glittering vacation from reality. I am also grateful for carriage away from the presumptuous individual that I was up until the encounter finally bulldozed smugness to an ugly relic of the past.