Fans of Jess Walter's novel "Beautiful Ruins" will likely be thrilled by the titular story of his new collection, "The Angel of Rome." The piece, which debuted as an Audible Original last year, was written in collaboration with Edoardo Ballerini, who narrated the audiobook of "Beautiful Ruins."
While the two works don't share characters, the new story again marries the magic of Italy with the allure of the silver screen. It follows 21-year-old Jack Rigel, an English major from Nebraska, who — motivated by desire both to reinvent himself and to impress an old classmate — wangles his way into an advanced Latin course at the Vatican. He quickly flounders in the Eternal City and is about to give up when he spies legendary beauty Angelina Amadio on a movie set. Soon Amadio's co-star Sam Burke, a B-list TV actor in the '80s, has enlisted Jack to help with everything from fixing his love life to punching up the film's script.
It's the longest story in the collection, but you will wish it was even longer — these characters are as enjoyable as any Walter has created. Unfortunately, only one of the collection's other 11 stories, all of which take place in the U.S. and all of which appeared in print over the past decade, delivers similar satisfaction.
That other highlight is the collection's similarly lengthy story, "The Way the World Ends," which was first released in an Amazon Originals climate fiction series in 2018. It follows two climate scientists, both applicants for the same Mississippi State University job, who are waylaid by a storm and end up, as the story's omniscient narrator tells it, "caught in some kind of deviant envirosexdeath party by an overlooked genius of southern literature … and a meteorology professor." It is a ridiculous riot with a heart, and like much of Walter's best work features a real-world cameo, in this case from one Johnny Cash.
The remaining stories are well written, but slight. Many feature young adults making empowered decisions seemingly against their best interests. In "Drafting," 36-year-old Myra reacts to her breast cancer diagnosis by reconnecting with a married old flame who generally responds to emotions with nude pics. And in "Famous Actor," a young woman takes a man home from a party after declaring, "I disliked him from the moment I decided to sleep with him."
As is sometimes the case with previously published work, some of these stories feel dated. The narrator in "Mr. Voice," published in Tin House in 2014, realizes that her family derives from more than just biological connections, but the plot points that catalyze her stepfather's development all result from women characters being imperiled, either killed off or assaulted.
Overall, the collection affirms that Walter excels when he allows his creations to grow over time. If "The Angel of Rome" shows that he had some residual Italian stories in his system, hopefully "The Way the World Ends" heralds a future novel about climate change.
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer.
The Angel of Rome
By: Jess Walter.
Publisher: Harper, 288 pages, $27.99.