Literary fiction must be the most challenging genre for an audiobook narrator. The actor is typically expected to alternate between finely wrought, cliche-free passages of description — which, if done right, won’t sound much like natural speech — and (hopefully) believable lines of dialogue. When the contrast between the two is especially pronounced, as with Kevin Powers’ recent Iraq novel, “The Yellow Birds,” it takes an exceptional performer to pull it off, as Holter Graham does, and masterfully. (I just wish I liked Powers’ book more.) More often, an actor who has been chosen for his or her marvelous personality or timbre is weaker at one or the other. The flights of metaphor sound awkward or the conversations flat, and you can never quite fall into the book.
All of which is to explain why this week’s Listener singles out not a brand-new release but one from earlier this year: Edoardo Ballerini’s narration of Jess Walter’s “Beautiful Ruins.” Walter narrated his last novel, “The Financial Lives of the Poets,” himself, and splendidly, but you can see why a pro was called in this time around. “Financial Lives” was the first-person account of one man’s flame-out in the recent economic crisis, a compact novel strongly tinted by the main character’s acidic gloom. “Beautiful Ruins” ranges wider in time and space, beginning in Italy in 1962 and hopping back and forth from a tiny coastal town there to modern-day Los Angeles and the Midwest.
“Beautiful Ruins” has a lot of characters and several narrative modes. There are a couple of first-person chapters, excerpts from an autobiographical novel by an American veteran of World War II and the memoir of the sleazy Hollywood producer who ties all of the characters together. That man’s name is Michael Deane, and he’s an amalgam of Michael Todd and Robert Evans, an appalling genius at figuring out what people really want (as opposed to what they say they want) and then using it against them. The other characters include a young Italian running a pensione in an obscure, unpicturesque fishing village; a starlet cast in the gargantuan production of “Cleopatra” then being filmed in Rome; a present-day development girl whose dream of making a really good film is gasping its last breath; a would-be screenwriter with the most uncommercial movie idea of all time and, improbably enough, Richard Burton.
Ballerini’s handling of this fantastically complex narration is so accomplished you keep forgetting that it’s a performance. He’s called upon to speak both native Italian and the clumsy speech of Americans with an uncertain grasp of the language. The dialogue of Pasquale, the innkeeper, is accented English; Deane spouts the flashy patter of The Business; the World War II book is a vamp on macho mid-century bids for the Great American Novel and the contemporary film-industry aspirants are exactly the right mix of cynicism and unearned self-confidence. And then there’s Burton, so easy to exaggerate to the point of ridicule, but always a figure whose magnificence cannot be discounted.
Parts of “Beautiful Ruins” are darkly bitter and others are flush with a sincere romanticism. It’s a novel about the possibility of achieving art in popular culture, and love in a world where people don’t hesitate to use each other mercilessly. One of the book’s most striking images is of an abandoned German bunker up in the cliffs near Pasquale’s hotel, lined with ravishing frescoes painted by one of the soldiers stationed there, paintings only a handful of people will ever see. Its counterpart is “Cleopatra,” a mess of a movie that (contrary to its reputation) actually managed to break even — but solely on account of publicity driven by the scandalous love affair between its two leads, Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
Walter’s previous novels, while impressive, had a somewhat cloistered, inward-looking quality. “Beautiful Ruins,” by contrast, exhilarates with its breadth. Pasquale’s decency, Deane’s ruthlessness, the former starlet’s weariness, the D-girl’s disgust and the screenwriter’s flickering optimism — each is presented as legitimate in its own way, an entirely understandable response to the world. None of the characters is a parody, although several of them easily could have been. Ballerini conveys this extraordinary conviction with a warmth that Walter’s fiction has never quite attained in the past. I believe that warmth is present in the novel, but Ballerini calls it forth with an urgency less evident on the page. He’s a true collaborator, and with “Beautiful Ruins” he delivers the best narration I’ve heard all year.
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