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
We walked through the Prada store, the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas’ ode to the eroticism of shopping, full of awkward staircases and headless mannequins and unsettling, surreal touches. "There were, like, seven parties when it opened," Wagner chortled, displaying his instinctive understanding of Hollywood hierarchies. "There was, like, the party, which no one was invited to, except for Nicole Kidman. Then there was the second party, which was, like, the party where they kept it from you that they’d already had the Nicole Kidman party. And then there was the third party, where people from the second party came to let people know that they’d been at the party before. Then there was the fourthparty, until finally by the time you got to the 12th party, it was just homeless people and fire marshals."
At the Milton F. Kreis drugstore and luncheonette, where the Regency Beverly Wilshire Tea Room is now enthroned, was where the young Wagner would see Groucho Marx and Tony Curtis while picking up Varietyfor his father. "They had the hair brushes in cases that would say $1,600. I’m an 11-year-old boy trying desperately to understand if it’s a joke, you know? If it’s an error? And on some level it didn’t matter what the explanation was, which was invariably that the bristles were so fine, or something like that. It just didn’t matter. It was an early lesson in, ‘If you’re in the right epicenter, you can just affix any price to anything.’"
Wagner wasn’t in the epicenter, of course, since his family wasn’t rich enough. He was on the epicenter’s edge, in the Beverly Hills "flats." (His friends de Becker and Ellroy also grew up on the fringes of wealthy L.A.) And when Wagner drifted away from the opulent enclave of his youth, he did so in dramatic fashion, falling into an "anonymous world of servitude," whether it was driving the superrich, or being a nurse to the dying, or chauffeuring Hustler publisher Larry Flynt to the hospital for physical therapy. It was all part of a deliberate attempt to experience the other side of things.
"When you become a private chauffeur, a very distorted transference of identity happens," Wagner said, mentally slipping back behind the wheel. "Suddenly you’re protecting something which is not yours, and your status is elevated in your mind! As a chauffeur, you made a jump that you were actually part of that class, you know what I mean? But growing up in Beverly Hills was extremely perverse. I had friends that were either television stars, or were the children of television stars, and I wanted that life for a long time. That was why it was so easy for me to write The Chrysanthemum Palace."
In a way, Palace is the story of what life might have been like for Wagner if, like some of his classmates, he had grown up as a really rich kid with famous parents. "I was raised, as you might have guessed, in a world of great privilege," says the book’s first-person narrator, Bertie Krohn, whose father is the creator-producer of a fabulously successful syndicated television show, Starwatch: The Navigators. And when, at 38, Bertie realizes that his career as an actor is a bust, and that his attempt to "reinvent" himself as a screenwriter has gone nowhere, Starwatch is there waiting to reclaim him, like the world’s biggest nest egg. All he has to say is, "I want in," and a part is created for him on the show, along with another one for his similarly struggling actress-girlfriend, Clea Freemantle, whose mother (as in the case of Wagner’s good friend Carrie Fisher) was a Hollywood star. It’s what Wagner says he never had when hecut himself loose without even bothering to acquire a high school diploma — a security blanket.
Shorter and more restrained than his earlier work, Palace could be seen as Wagner’s shot at a new kind of literary respectability, an attempt to capture "the great, prosaic poetry that is our lot," as Bertie puts it. The book tells the story of a ménage à trois and romantic dance of death among Bertie, Clea, and Thad Michelet, an actor and writer whose father is a legendary (and legendarily nasty) novelist. At 54, Thad is the senior of the group, and with his migraines and mood swings and love of wordplay, by far the liveliest character. One suspects that there is more than a little in him of Wagner himself.
Though filled with brilliant set pieces, Palace raises the question of whether Wagner can make audiences careabout his self-absorbed, "groggily postshiatsu" show-biz characters, with their drug problems and AA meetings and commitment phobias, as opposed to simply being horrified and fascinated by them. At times the writing falls uneasily between earnestness and outright parody. "I felt bad about what happened," writes Bertie at the beginning of one section. "Anyway, Clea was right — I had been judging her. I felt like a jerk. I was genuinely worried about her sobriety yet somehow managed to come across as petty, hostile and competitive. I had immediately gotten off on the wrong foot by dissing her TV idea. We’d never had an argument like that, and it didn’t sit well."