Anyone who has read Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins will want to turn straight to ‘The Angel of Rome’, the title story in this second collection by the versatile American author. Like the novel that elevated Walter from an underrated writer of police procedurals and thrillers to one capable of bestsellers, ‘The Angel of Rome’ is set in Italy and features a filmset and glamorous actors. Both are also partly based on real life.
In Beautiful Ruins, Walter plays with what happened during the filming of the 1963 epic Cleopatra. Here he bases the story on an episode in the life of Edoardo Ballerini, an actor who read Beautiful Ruins. Walter, who lives in Spokane, Washington, co-credits Ballerini at the end of the story, which is about Jack Rigel, a shy 21-year-old wannabe writer who stumbles across a filmset while studying Latin, badly, on a scholarship in Rome.
Rigel’s angel is a washed-up American TV actor who enlists him as his translator and confidant. It’s an amusing tale that proves a perfect title story for a collection which is about surviving life and life’s survivors, whether Walter is writing of a crude father with acute enough dementia to vote for Trump in the story ‘Town & Country’, or the grouchy, grieving widower in ‘To the Corner’, frustrated by the gang of boys hanging out on the corner opposite his house.
Collections can be patchy, but this 12-strong number reads like a greatest hits album from someone with an acute eye for life’s absurdities (for instance the gay son in ‘Town & Country’ living his ‘Sisyphean hell, coming out to my fading father every day for the rest of his life’) and moments of poignancy.