Bruce Wagner nursed a large latte and studied The New York Times. As always, he was dressed in black, and two or three days dark stubble decorated his cheeks and prominent chin. His eyes, warm and brown like those of a highly intelligent dog, peered out of hefty black-framed glasses, and his partly bald, partly shaved head was the color of an old onion. Sitting in the otherwise deserted bar of the Bryant Park Hotel in midtown Manhattan, he might have been a solitude-loving fashion designer enjoying a bit of down time. In fact, he is our premier "Hollywood novelist," part of a celebrated lineage that runs from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Nathanael West, Budd Schulberg, Michael Tolkin and other witty, jaded observers of L.A.s sun-dappled, soul-mottled, earthquake-rattled scene.
It was 11 oclock on a Saturday morning in early October, and Wagner was in a calm, pensive mood. In novels such as Force Majeure and his acclaimed "Cellular Trilogy" Im Losing You, Ill Let You Go and Still Holding he has painted a minutely detailed portrait of a city filled with lunatic stars and lunatics who want to be stars. The humor is as black as Wagners jacket, and hospitals and disease crop up as frequently as in the pestilential pages of William Burroughs. Everyone is on drugs, or getting off them. Ativans and Percodans and Vicodins and Klonipins litter the pages. The sex is sick, even prosecutable. Waitresses are wacko, producers are perverts, and movie projects are mirages that draw the hapless closer and closer until they sink in the quicksand of their own delusions. As the British novelist Will Self blurbed, Wagners satires make all other Hollywood satires "look Capraesque in their innocence."
In contrast to his characters, the author himself seemed studiously sane. He oozed sincerity, used words like "tender" and "poignant" a lot, and said he wrote his novels from "a timeless place." But in an era when many people read fiction to get away from the hyped-up rhythms of contemporary life, Wagners novels plunge them right back into it. There is as much name-dropping in his books as in Entertainment Weekly. The first page of Still Holding, which is about Hollywood look-alikes, includes references to Drew Barrymore, Jack Black, Jay Leno and Sissy Spacek, not to mention the movie Star 80 and "a knockoff Hermès scarf."
The standard interpretation is that Wagners books are about hell, Hollywood style, a satanic entertainment kingdom run by "H.I.V.I.P.s" and other assorted monsters who torture their assistants between yoga classes and betray their best friends whenever they have reason to, which is often. Its a place where a screenwriter whos adapted Gogols Dead Souls doesnt leave his house for 15 years because hes waiting for a call back from the studio. But of course its when he finally does leave that the trouble starts.
"I infect my work with madness, then let it settle," Wagner told me. "The story is infected by something like in David Cronenbergs films. My job is to be realistic and poetic at the same time, so that people have a sense of being transported somewhere else. Im very sentimental at the same time as Im very cold-hearted."
Wagner was in New York to promote Still Holding, the final installment of his trilogy, which had just been released in paperback. The strategy at Simon & Schuster, his publisher, was to reacquaint booksellers and the public with his work a few months before the publication of his new novel, The Chrysanthemum Palace (which arrives in bookstores next week).
A few nights earlier, he had read from Still Holding at the Barnes & Noble in Astor Place. Given that the reading ended only a few minutes before the first presidential debate between Bush and Kerry began, it was surprisingly well attended. There were a few hip types in the audience, but for the most part it was a generic urban mix: male, female, young, middle-aged, old, more or less what you would have found in any section of the store.
Standing next to a bookcase crammed with self-help titles Stress Management for Dummies, Changing Course, Doing Good for Goodness Sake Wagner spoke into a microphone with practiced ease. He disputed that his books were really satires, since satire exaggerates and his books (he said) dont a disturbing thought. Instead, he insisted on the emotional core of Still Holding, and said that the novel was concerned with death and greatly influenced by The Tibetan Book of the Dead. "Im not a Buddhist," he said, "but it forced me, almost as a teacher would, a monk, to go to places that Im due to go to now at 50. So its not the book of a 30-year-old or 40-year-old. Its 50. For me its a big turning point in terms of the ability to look at death with ones eyes open, and hopefully" Wagner lowered his voice playfully "be humorous about it."