By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Wagner is a natural performer, and the audience at Barnes & Noble chuckled whenever he dropped a phrase ("JackassDVD on the plasma") juicily redolent of decadent Hollywood pop culture. The final scene he read from the novel was about Kit Lightfoot, the book’s movie-star hero, who is about to play the leading role in a Spike Jonze movie about a famous actor who is set to play a retarded man when a car crash leaves him "neurologically impaired." But then — in real life — a fan, enraged when Kit refuses to autograph his girlfriend’s breasts, breaks a wine bottle over his head, putting Kit into a coma.
Assembled at Cedars-Sinai Hospital (a place of almost mystical significance in the Wagner oeuvre) are Kit’s agent, his lawyer, various actor buddies and the real-life director Darren Aronofsky. (One of the mysteries of Wagner’s fiction is how he has been able to place real people in his books without getting sued.) They are wondering if Kit will ever work again and quibbling among themselves. Wagner was not only willing to do all the voices, he relished the task. As he read it, it was evident that he found his characters grotesque, but lovable, and he bellowed every italicized word into the microphone as if he had morphed into some demented Tinseltown agent himself:
"Jesus," said a manager, with sudden emotion. "Has anything like this ever happened before? Has a major film star ever been attacked?"
"Sharon Tate," said the publicist.
"I’m sorry, but Sharon Tate was not a major star!"
I’m a native son, and the East Coast is almost a foreign place to me," Wagner said when I saw him two months later in Santa Monica. It was a stunning December day, temperature in the high 70s, the sky immaculate blue, and Wagner looked thoroughly at ease. In New York, it was as if a little cloud of introspection had been hanging over his head. Here, on familiar turf, he felt free, and his body language was ebullient. "We hope you’re wearing sunblock with that," he remarked to a bare-bellied female Santa Claus who was roller skating in front of the Casa del Mar Hotel. More Santa Claus impersonators, dozens of them, were gathering further down the boardwalk, protesting something. It might have been a scene from one of his own novels.
L.A., and particularly Hollywood, is a tricky place to write about because of its overwhelming association with film. Not the Word, but the Image. "It’s a hard nut to crack," Wagner told me over a late breakfast at Shutters on the Beach, "because there’s so much cliché here. I mean, how in the world do you write about an agent? How do you write about a producer?"
This is how Wagner did it in I’m Losing You.
That was Taj, the relatively new Assistant.
"What happened to the Dead Souls coverage?"
"What did you call me?"
Shortish hair in tight curls. The kind of preppie skin that mottled pink when he blushed or got cold or evinced outrage. Fear quickly soured his breath.
"A gaping, shit-contaminated hole."
You’d think, given the way he writes about them, that anyone even remotely connected to the motion-picture industry would head for the exit the moment a black-clad gentleman with a shaved head and three days’ stubble walked into the room. But Wagner claims that he is not really "on anyone’s radar," that most people in Hollywood don’t read anyway, and therefore his books go largely unnoticed by the very people he’s writing about.
The novelist Bret Easton Ellis, who’s a friend of Wagner’s, finds this explanation credible. "Bruce’s books really aren’t easy reads, and you have to have a pretty sophisticated sensibility to get what he’s doing, so where does that leave you with Hollywood?" he asked sarcastically when reached by phone. "Who ison their radar? What novelists arethey paying attention to?"
Wagner’s novels sell more on the East Coast than they do on the West. When I’m Losing You was published, he received a career-making review from John Updike in The New Yorker. ("Bruce Wagner knows his Hollywood, and writes like a wizard.") But closer to home, critics have often been tough on him. "Bruce Wagner’s fiction reads like pornography for California-haters," noted the book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, David Kipen, who is an admirer, nonetheless. "All their cozy East Coast prejudices, all their suspicions about ‘Lotusland’ come echoing back to them in Wagner’s fiction, confirmed and exaggerated." It’s not surprising, then, that probably the worst review he ever received was in the L.A. Times.
As if to underline the fact that this insiderish chronicler of Hollywood remains an outsider in the city’s literary circles (a status Wagner himself refers to as "my dramatic invisibility"), the recent anthology of essays on L.A. lit, The Misread City, left him out of the equation. Nor did he make it into the 1,000-page anthology Writing Los Angeles, published by the Library of America in 2002, which did find room for lesser-known contemporaries such as Lynell George, Carol Muske, Rubén Martinez and D.J. Waldie. The book’s editor, David L. Ulin, explained in an e-mail that the omission was largely because Wagner is "impossible to excerpt," but it may be that Wagner does not quite conform to what literary L.A. expects of its writers. As one editor told me, after meeting with Wagner and then seeing him drive off in his very large, very shiny, very black SUV, "He just doesn’t actlike a writer." To which someone replied: "Yes, he makes money."