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Back in the SUV, we headed for Beverly Hills. "Hopefully something exciting happens, a celebrity has a heart attack or stroke," Wagner murmured. Then he fantasized a newspaper report: "Wagner, using his paramedical skills, dislodged the steak tartare that had lodged in Cliff Robertson’s trachea. ‘He hasn’t worked in a while,’ said Wagner . . ."
Wagner is interested in extremes — of privilege, as he experienced growing up in Beverly Hills, or of poverty, as he witnessed in Bombay, India, which he recently visited with another Beverly Hills High alumnus, Gavin de Becker, the security specialist and author of The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence.
A couple of brief e-mails Wagner sent me while in India give a sense of what he saw there. "Yesterday was Dussehra, the day people worship the instruments they work with," he wrote on October 22. "Flowers bedeck hoods of taxis in celebration of the engines. Police haul out weapons from the armory and worship them; a priest sprinkles carbines, bullets and bayonets with holy water."
"Wholesale fabric market today then a jog to Malabar hills to see towers of silence (parsee), where bodies are placed to be vulture-eaten," he wrote in another.
"Bruce bought an apartment in Bombay, so it clearly held some profound appeal to him," de Becker told me, speaking by phone from his home in Fiji. "We both read a book called Maximum City, which talks about the fact that Bombay has a population of 14 million people, of whom 7 million are homeless. India really matches Bruce very well, because it is a place of stunning extremes, great wealth and great poverty, beauty and horror. We are everything, and that city is everything."
Every morning for 10 days, Wagner and de Becker were granted an audience with Ramesh Balsekar, a guru who, according to Wagner, bases his teaching on a statement of the Buddha: "Events happen. Deeds are done. But there is no individual doer of the deed." (Leonard Cohen, who has also studied with Balsekar, quoted the identical sentence when I interviewed him at his home in L.A. three years ago.) Without being religious, Wagner is a "seeker" who for a long time was involved with the controversial anthropologist and writer Carlos Castaneda, whose shamanistic teachings continue to influence him. (Wagner got his first gig as a film director by making videos of Castaneda’s workshops, and may one day write a book or film about his life.) Though he sometimes satirizes Hollywood’s spiritual impulses in his fiction, he seems to respect them more than he does its political ones. Carrie Fisher told me that Wagner’s politics "would be what you think they are — I don’t think he’s fond of the current administration, for instance," but in the car, Wagner sounded slightly less predictable. "This whole left-wing thing is so tiresome to me," he said at one point. "I saw Bill O’Reilly on Jon Stewart, and he was, like, the best guest Jon Stewart’s ever had, in terms of his sanity. He was so clear-headed! He was really lucid."
According to Ellroy (who wrote the introduction to O’Reilly’s book The No Spin Zone), Wagner is neither a liberal nor a conservative, but a moralist who judges individuals for their public and private moral acts. "Bruce is a genuinely, righteously good motherfucker. He’s a loyal friend, he cares for a wide range of people, and by writers’ standards, he’s not untowardly self-absorbed," was the novelist’s verdict.
Despite his ever-bubbling stream of fantasy, Wagner has a strong practical side. He has increased his wealth through real estate investments, and last year he persuaded Andrew Wylie, the world’s most powerful literary agent, to represent him. Even when he was down and out, he acted as if he had money. Deborah Drooz tells the story of how, when he was sleeping on her couch, Wagner brought home a woman he was dating. "It had been very cold that evening, and she didn’t have a wrap, so he went into some fancy department store and bought her a cashmere sweater with a fur trim. I remember reprimanding him, ‘You don’t have a sou, what are you doing?!’ He always lived large, and was very generous and gallant, especially with women."
"There’s this constant duality of worlds, which for me is exemplified by the rich and those who are downtrodden," Wagner explained. "It’s simply life as we know it, and as it always has been. I’m not someone who feels things should be rectified, I’m just not that. I don’t consider myself to be a writer who has social issues."
"The poor are always with us?"
"Yeah, as are the rich, and the healthy along with the diseased. And the trick is to have an impersonal reaction to these things when they happen to oneself."
Rodeo Drive sparkled in the late-afternoon sunlight. Striding along the spotless sidewalk with his lurching, oddly military gait, arm swinging, Wagner remembered everything, every shop that had once been another shop and another shop before that, and his conversation became a nonstop flow of reminiscence. "It’s strange that Rodeo looks so different, but it always has this weird allure," he said, looking around appreciatively. "Even 35 years ago, it was the same, when places like Giorgio’s were here. There was a yellow Rolls-Royce that was always parked here, there was a nightclub called the Daisy over there . . ."