Hollywood operators and creative washouts collide across five decades and two continents in a brilliant, madcap meditation on fate.
The sixth novel by Walter (The Financial Lives of the Poets, 2009, etc.) opens in April 1962 with the arrival of starlet Dee Moray in a flyspeck Italian resort town. Dee is supposed to be filming the Liz Taylor-Richard Burton costume epic Cleopatra, but her inconvenient pregnancy (by Burton) has prompted the studio to tuck her away. A smitten young man, Pasquale, runs the small hotel where she’s hidden, and he’s contemptuous of the studio lackey, Michael Deane, charged with keeping Dee out of sight. From there the story sprays out in multiple directions, shifting time and perspective to follow Deane’s evolution into a Robert Evans-style mogul; Dee’s hapless aging-punk son; an alcoholic World War II vet who settles into Pasquale’s hotel to peck away at a novel; and a young screenwriter eagerly pitching a dour movie about the Donner Party. Much of the pleasure of the novel comes from watching Walter ingeniously zip back and forth to connect these loose strands, but it largely succeeds on the comic energy of its prose and the liveliness of its characters. A theme that bubbles under the story is the variety of ways real life energizes great art—Walter intersperses excerpts from his characters’ plays, memoirs, film treatments and novels to show how their pasts inform their best work. Unlikely coincidences abound, but they feel less like plot contrivances than ways to serve a broader theme about how the unlikely, unplanned moments in our lives are the most meaningful ones. And simply put, Walter’s prose is a joy—funny, brash, witty and rich with ironic twists. He’s taken all of the tricks of the postmodern novel and scoured out the cynicism, making for a novel that's life-affirming but never saccharine.
A superb romp.