Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

Hooray for Horace

Books Reviews
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

OK, class, time to discuss the classical difference between Horatian and Juvenalian satire.

There will be a quiz. Ready?

Horace, the Roman satirist, the father of gentility, emerged as a playful, witty, light-hearted kinda guy, a writer who enjoyed skewering mankind’s numberless follies. Most historians will tell you that Horace didn’t really believe in the idea of human evil—instead, he thought people happened to be a little silly, misguided, given to going off half-cocked. We struck him as delightfully funny, in a mild, gently comedic way. Horace liked to poke a little fun.

On the other hand, the satirical Roman poet Juvenal, author of The Satires, took delight in skewering his corrupt society. Savage ridicule, even scornful wrath, stand as spiky hallmarks of Juvenal’s work—he left no body unburied. Juvenal definitely believed in the idea of human evil, and he acted as his culture’s moralist, mercilessly attacking pagan Roman society for its ethical failings, and giving no quarter. Juvenal didn’t poke fun—he poked us all in the eye, with a sharp stick.

Quiz time—in which satirical camp would you put Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert? Are they Horatian or Juvenalian? What about The Simpsons? South Park?

Here’s a reasonable barometer: If you’re really mad, in fact downright furious because some issue offends your moral sensibilities so frightfully, you’re probably with Juvenal. Any significant anger in your satire lands you in Juvenal’s camp. But … if you can somehow hold your affection for humanity intact, somehow create your satire without getting all indignant, irritable and outraged, you’re most likely a Horatian.

So many modern satirists circa 2012 feel Juvenalian. We seem to have somehow misplaced the idea, politically and otherwise, that a person we satirize could be … maybe … just a little bit sympathetic. (Might he or she even be right, even if the viewpoint differs?) Our culture’s satirists today rarely poke—they stab, then twist the knife. You see the trend in television, in film, in stand-up, in Congress, just about everywhere. Take a listen to Louis C.K. or one of the other hot, angry comedians of the moment, and you’ll hear Juvenal.

But subtle modern wits will occasionally craft something eminently Horatian. Any Randy Newman song; a wistful Wes Anderson film like Moonrise Kingdom; the gentle humanism of Garrison Keillor; everything Monty Python; the quiet, hilarious poetry and prose of Jack Pendarvis—all have their origins in Horace’s amiable attacks. They each evince a wonderful subtlety, a bemused, catch-more-flies-with-honey approach that makes us happy both inwardly and outwardly.

So does Beautiful Ruins, a new novel from Jess Walter, the Spokane ex-journalist’s fifth book of fiction. Walter, who apparently can write just about anything he wants at will, has penned gripping non-fiction (Ruby Ridge); a witty farce about the Recession (The Financial Lives of the Poets, now on its way to film); a jarring post-modern literary novel that very successfully takes on the big, dark subject of 9/11 (The Zero, a finalist for the National Book Award); and a terrific series of quirky, atmospheric mysteries (Land of the Blind, Over Tumbled Graves and Citizen Vince, this last winning the Edgar award for Best First Novel). Obviously, this guy knows how to write, and his range keeps expanding.

Walter’s new book, Ruins, takes a subtly satirical look at America from the 1960s to now. He administers a general-purpose Horatian colonoscopy of our collective folly … and especially the lies and deceit endemic to our media-driven culture.

Beautiful Ruins opens in a decrepit, crumbling little Italian coastal town with a humble pension called the Hotel Adequate View, into which comes a beautiful but deathly ill American starlet, who mesmerizes the hotel’s young owner, Pasquale Tursi, who has a deep dark secret.

Pasquale encounters all manner of crazy American behavior when he learns his sylphlike actress has an unresolved Richard Burton problem. Burton, on location in Rome to film Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor, is the novel’s namesake, from this Louis Menand New Yorker piece: “[Dick] Cavett’s four great interviews with Richard Burton were done in 1980….Burton, fifty-four at the time, and already a beautiful ruin, was mesmerizing.”

The novel proceeds to shift between 1962-era Italy and contemporary America, along the way visiting the Donner Party, the soft white underbelly of show business, our cultural obsessions with beauty and money, World War II Europe and some Nazis, and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. We encounter a face-lifted Hollywood PR wizard-turned-producer and his ambitious, literate assistant; a drunken, profligate Burton; a widowed mother alternatively doting on and attempting to raise her wastrel, charming musician son; and a few aspiring writers who try with varying degrees of success to break into the big time.

The sprawling subjects here cover the past 50 years and a lot of territory—war, family, relationships happy and horrid, growing up, parenting, reality television, cannibals, the use and immoral misuse of public relations, self-indulgent memoirs, the publishing industry itself and of course love lasting and honorable, feckless and shallow.

Ruins constitutes a departure for Walter, another unplowed field, and he harrows it straight and true, turning up the fertile humus of the culture’s soiled psyche. Beautiful Ruins collides its broad range of characters in unexpected, unique ways, and the wonderful light touch of the satire makes them eminently believable. Unlike the Juvenalian satirists, whose righteous indignation sometimes results in flat, two-dimensional, cardboard characterizations, Walter’s people inspire sympathy, belief, even a little self-examination. Am I like this? Do I have any qualities that resemble the ones I’m reading about here? If I do, where do I get help?

This kind of writing, gentle Twain-inspired satire so subtle it prompts self-reflection, has become almost a lost art form. Beautiful Ruins won’t make you laugh ruefully. It doesn’t generate big guffaws. It won’t make you cough up jaded laughter from that shallow contemporary well of cynical black humor that harshly judges all things equally worthless.

Instead, Jess Walter has written a novel that sprawls on the lawn, looks up fondly at the achingly blue American sky and gazes into the deep humor of our collective human condition. That’s what good satire does—it reminds us who we really are. Humans.

Walter’s characters span the spectrum of modern-day human behavior, from mercilessly using others to grasping and self-serving; from addicted and addled to noble and kind. The discordance and distance between this novel’s very distinct characters serve a powerful purpose, pointing out the dichotomies inherent in their qualities and the way those qualities affect others. Walter’s beautifully ruined characters earn our affection.

The writing offers the nice, light touch of satirical hilarity you’d expect from a Horatian:

The Deane of Hollywood reclines in silk pajamas on a chaise on his lanai, sipping a Fresca-with-ginseng and looking out over the trees to the glittering lights of Beverly Hills. Open in his lap is a script, the sequel to Night Ravagers (EXT. LOS ANGELES – NIGHT: A black Trans Am speeds past a burning Getty Museum). His assistant, Claire, has pronounced the script “not even good by crap standards,” and while Claire’s critical limbo stick is set too high, in this case – given the shrinking margin in movies and the shit business the first Night Ravagers did – Michael has to agree.

Of course, no truly Horatian satire leaves it at that. Prototypical Hollywood sleazoid Michael Deane, the reader soon discovers, isn’t just a foil, a louse to look down upon and see as somehow less virtuous than we are. Turns out he’s a man with his own struggles and pain and tests and difficulties. I suspect most readers will wind up—and this is a testimony to Jess Walter’s skill as a writer of satire—truly feeling for each of his key characters. E.M. Forster categorized fictional characters as either flat or round. Jess Walter’s are as round as possible, each complete with virtues and vices, human foibles and faults. In a while, you love them all.

Big, broad, highly effective satire like this doesn’t appear often—it takes great skill and nuance to create it. When you read Beautiful Ruins, you’ll taste flavors of our greatest satirists—George Orwell, Ambrose Bierce, H. L. Mencken, Jane Austen, Frank Zappa, Garry Trudeau, Flannery O’Connor, George Carlin, Walt Kelly, Stanley Kubrick, even Twain Himself.

I expect they’re all smiling along with Horace at this wonderful, funny tale.

David Langness is a writer and literary critic who lives in the Bay Area, and whose dearest, most unlikely fantasy is five good minutes at the Comedy Store.

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