BEAUTIFUL RUINS. By Jess Walter. Harper. 337 pages, $26.

Embraced by everyone from Anthony Trollope to Tom Wolfe, the social satire remains enduringly popular. For good reason: Readers get to peer, not just into the hearts of the novel’s characters, but into the soul of the culture.

It’s a high-wire act for the novelist: How to retain empathy for his characters, even as he shreds the pretensions, the evasions and the hypocrisies of the times they live in.

Acclaimed author Jess Walter takes on such a task in his ambitious new novel “Beautiful Ruins,” as he creates memorable characters and runs them through the Hollywood entertainment mill.

Walter, a former journalist, has written several fiction and nonfiction books, including “The Zero,” a 2006 National Book Award finalist. This time Walter’s subject is America’s entertainment culture.

“Beautiful Ruins” dissects popular media: reality TV’s race to the bottom to find the lowest common denominator, story arcs for audiences with the attention span of a flea, bad taste in grotesque abundance.

The story begins in the early 1960s with the filming of the movie “Cleopatra,” when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s love life became bigger news than the movie itself, and paparazzi jammed the streets of Rome to get a snap of the most famous lovers in the world.

Against this Technicolor backdrop emerges one man of pure heart, a young Italian named Pasquale Tursi, who runs a pensione on the Ligurian coast called Hotel Adequate View.

One day a vision arrives at the pensione: a young American actress, escorted via motorboat into the cove beneath the hotel. The actress, Dee Moray, has stomach cancer (or so she has been led to believe). She’s waiting for a man to come to help her through her ordeal. Pasquale falls in love, the love that never ends.

From here, the intricate plot ricochets hither and yon in Italy, with stops in Portland, Ore.; Edinburgh; Hollywood; Seattle; and Sand Point, Idaho.

But the author had more in mind here than exposing our weaknesses and skewering our pretensions.

“Beautiful Ruins” asks: How do you balance desire with doing the right thing? It’s the epic struggle of our time, when so much choice is at our fingertips, and finding the right path is correspondingly difficult. Beneath Walter’s black comic’s mask beats the brain of an ethical philosopher and the heart of a romantic. Not everyone in “Beautiful Ruins” gets what they want. But they do get what they need.

Reviewer Mary Ann Gwinn, a writer for The Seattle Times