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Hollywood Satiricon 

Bruce Wagner infects his novels with madness, celebrity, name-dropping, drugs and sex. And that's just the realism.

Thursday, Jan 27 2005
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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 act like a writer." To which someone replied: "Yes, he makes money."

There’s another way in which Wagner doesn’t fit the literary stereotype, but does fit the Hollywood one — he doesn’t read many novels. Hardly any, in fact. Mention Martin Amis to him, with the intention of making a comparison between Amis’ novels and Wagner’s own, and the conversation quickly founders: Wagner hasn’t read Martin Amis.

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"I don’t read very much at all," he confessed to me, though without embarrassment or shame. "I sort of have a reading disability. I read only maybe three books a year. They’re always by dead people, and they’re always related to what I’m doing. I don’t read for pleasure, for example. I’ve never acquired that ability. Magazines I read only for what I do, and I read a lot of magazines and newspapers. A huge amount. I mean, the L.A. Times for me is a sacred text. I know people don’t like it, but it astonishes me what I find in the L.A. Times. Books for me are like fetish objects. I buy the same ones again and again and again, but I rarely read them. I don’t want to finish all of Faulkner — it would be a horror, a death."

Wagner’s reading habits, or lack of them, came up when I asked Ellis if he’d read The Chrysanthemum Palace. He hadn’t. "Bruce’s been wanting to give it to me, he even brought the galleys when he came over to dinner the other night, so I don’t know why he didn’t give it to me. It may have been because I was rather shocked that Bruce didn’t read a lot of other people’s books and yet expected them to read his own. When I confronted him with this, I think he got a little hurt and reconsidered."

Wagner was born in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1954. His father was a consultant for radio programs, and when Wagner was 2, the family moved to Atlanta, Georgia. Two years later, they relocated again, this time to Pacific Heights, San Francisco (they always lived in the best neighborhoods, even when they couldn’t afford it), where they spent four years, at which point they moved to L.A. Wagner has lived nowhere else since. It’s his town, and though he can imagine writing about it from somewhere else, he doesn’t particularly want to. His mother, who has worked at Saks Fifth Avenue for decades, still lives in the house he grew up in. "Bruce is a Jewish kid who grew up south of Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, in the cheap seats, and it’s life-forming for him," his friend novelist James Ellroy told me. "Ethnic identity is fate, and geography is fate."

Wanting to be a writer — a novelist — made Wagner something of an anomaly growing up. He stole books and amassed a dandy’s library, as much for show as for study. It’s easy to imagine him as a youthful, immensely pretentious littérateur, the self-styled Baudelaire of Beverly Hills, the Raymond Radiguet of Rodeo Drive, that he must have been as an adolescent swooning over Jean Genet and Henry Miller and the dark, surreal cinema of Luis Buñuel in the moneyed precincts of 90210. When he dropped out of Beverly Hills High to work in a bookstore — he never did get his high school diploma, let alone attend college — friends assumed it was a prank, that no one would work in a bookstore except as a joke, and they would visit him there as if he were creating an extended piece of performance art. But the budding author was serious. He met his hero, Henry Miller, the legendary author of Tropic of Cancer, in the lobby of a West Hollywood movie theater, and wept hysterically. He also had a breakdown, and ended up at a halfway house in San Francisco, where he was diagnosed with a "character disorder."

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