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
Photos by Debra DiPaolo
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 o’clock 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" — I’m Losing You, I’ll 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 Wagner’s 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, Wagner’s 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, Wagner’s 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 Wagner’s 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. It’s a place where a screenwriter who’s adapted Gogol’s Dead Souls doesn’t leave his house for 15 years because he’s waiting for a call back from the studio. But of course it’s 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 Cronenberg’s films. My job is to be realistic and poetic at the same time, so that people have a sense of being transported somewhere else. I’m very sentimental at the same time as I’m 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) don’t — 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. "I’m not a Buddhist," he said, "but it forced me, almost as a teacher would, a monk, to go to places that I’m due to go to now at 50. So it’s not the book of a 30-year-old or 40-year-old. It’s 50. For me it’s a big turning point in terms of the ability to look at death with one’s eyes open, and hopefully" — Wagner lowered his voice playfully — "be humorous about it."
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."
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.
"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 hugeamount. I mean, the L.A. Timesfor 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."
Multiple character disorder is more like it. Wagner is very pleasant to be with, and is by all accounts a tremendously loyal and amusing friend, but you get the sense there are about 15 different people fighting it out behind that carefully molded exterior. (His novels, not surprisingly, tend to be polyphonic.) In 1989 he was married, briefly, to the blond, femme-fatale-ish actress Rebecca De Mornay, and for a while he kept his friends at arm’s length.
"No one was really around for Rebecca and Bruce," the actress and writer Carrie Fisher told me. "They went off and had their relationship, and for the first time in Bruce’s life, you weren’t allowed to make fun of anything, it was sacrosanct. We were not allowed to in any way joke about this relationship, or even talk about it. And this was a guy who would usually tell you in more detail about things you didn’t even want to know about! But in this situation, nothing, until one night he finally showed up on my doorstep, saying, ‘Oh my God, it was like being in a foreign country and I’d lost my passport and couldn’t get out!’"
Since the divorce, Wagner has kept his private life tightly under wraps. According to his friend actress Dana Delaney, all his girlfriends since De Mornay have had dark hair — he has become a blond-phobe — while Wagner himself would say only that he has a long-term involvement, that it is stable, and that he’d prefer it if people concentrated on his work. "Nobody gives a shit about writers’ involvements anyway," he said.
"I know Bruce from Beverly High, many years ago," I was told by attorney Deborah Drooz (who is married to Weeklystaffer Greg Burk), "and at some point he just vanished. There was a period of years when no one knew where he was. Then when I was in my 20s he reappeared, doing all kinds of crazy things. He was a chauffeur, he drove an ambulance, he sold aluminum siding, all these bizarre temporary employments. But he was always writing, and the first pieces I read of his were the Bud Wiggins stories. They’re very dark, and very much about the people in L.A. and the Industry. You couldn’t help but recognize this was a fresh voice. The question was whether he would get through that barrier and be published and do well with it."
The Bud Wiggins stories became Force Majeure, Wagner’s first novel. (Out of print for eight years, it is being reissued this month by Simon & Schuster.) It was published in 1991, by which time he had already written the scripts for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 and for Paul Bartel’s Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills. He was, in other words, already fairly successful, but in the black-and-white author photograph on the book’s jacket, he looked gaunt and almost Levantine, like an insomniac librarian in Alexandria circa 1910. (When he went to Jerusalem with Carrie Fisher in the late 1980s, he was constantly being carded as an Arab.) Despite the fact that he hadn’t written much of it, he thought of himself primarily as a writer of prose. This was his bid to prove it.
A picaresque novel about a dreamily disturbed screenwriter, Force Majeure leaned heavily on Wagner’s own experience as a down-and-out limo driver to the stars. Inspired by Don Quixote and Fitzgerald’s "Pat Hobby" stories, the book feels unique and almost unclassifiable, presented in a style so deadpan it’s as if the characters are locked behind a wall of bulletproof glass. Alternately poetic and vicious (it ends with the hero molesting a 10-year-old girl), the book demonstrated Wagner’s ability to write about Los Angeles in a genuinely original and lyrical way, and parts of it are very funny. Like the work of his friend (and fellow lover of De Mornay) Leonard Cohen, it is full of mock grandiosity — not art so much as a reverence for the idea of art, the literary masterpiece as spiritual quest. Bud Wiggins, a "lucid dreamer," is a screenwriter, after all, which is to say a near-writer, and his depression is buffered by Vicodin and fantasy.
Force Majeurecame festooned with the kind of ultracool A-list blurbs (Terry Southern, William Gibson, Michael O’Donoghue) that would grant any screenwriter-turned-novelist a decade’s worth of bragging rights at Chateau Marmont. But the satisfaction Wagner felt in finishing and publishing the book was "almost fetishistic," according to the author himself. It was as if he couldn’t quite believe that he was a writer, and Force Majeure was the incontrovertible proof. He had now written one of those things that were on his shelves, to be placed alongside the works of his heroes — Charles Dickens, Henry Miller, Cervantes. "Whether my book was great or not, it had been published, and I could stealit if I wanted from a bookstore — my own!"
A few days after our breakfast at Shutters, Wagner whisked me off in his SUV to his old stomping grounds in Beverly Hills. But first we stopped off at his Santa Monica duplex loft, which is in a building designed by Frank Gehry. Wagner was dressed, as always and forever, in black: black shirt, black jacket, black pants, and long, pointy-toed black leather boots. Even his face, which had been clean-shaven the last time I’d seen him, was once more blackened with stubble.
The ground floor of the loft, which was immense and cavernous and filled with a cathedral hush, was full of books — an astonishing number of them, for someone who claims not to read many — piled up vertically on the floor like free-standing sculptures, along with others housed more conventionally in plastic bookcases. Pindar, Faulkner, Cervantes, Casanova, Petrarch, Blake, Catullus, Castaneda, a Bible dictionary, a Guide to Sufism, the Complete Oxford English Dictionary, Van Gogh’s Letters, and Jean-Paul Sartre’s vast, legendarily unreadable study of Flaubert, The Family Idiot. "I got obsessed with it when I was a kid," Wagner mentioned casually.
Being in the loft wasn’t like being in anything so quaint as a writer’s "study." It was like being inside a brain, the cerebral headquarters of Bruce Wagner Inc. ("It’s radioactive in here!" he joked.) Work is done on a computer at a huge desk at one end of the room. When the phone rings, Wagner picks up. When an e-mail arrives, he answers it immediately. He is a skilled multitasker, able to move easily from novel to film script to television pilot and back again, perhaps because he thinks in terms of "story" rather than the particular categories in which a story might go. The Chrysanthemum Palace began life as a play, is now a novel, and may end up as a film. Wagner has already directed two movies, both based on his novel I’m Losing You, but they look very slight when set beside his books.
"I can work on a lot of things at once," Wagner said. "It’s the one gift that I have, and I only say it’s a gift because it affords me a certain ease. I can set down a book I’ve been working on, and then come back to it two years later without rereading what I’ve done. I can do a lot of things at one time, and I don’t have to disappear into a woodshed — yet!"
Notes for various novels and scripts, written in black felt pen in big capital letters, were pinned to panels of cork that ran along the walls: TORTURE, POVERTY, MOLESTATION, ADDICTION, DEGRADATION. Newspaper clippings: OPERATION GOES WELL ON SHAQ’S TOE. JORDANIAN MOTHER DENIES SON HAS TIES TO TERRORISM. Different projected books (Wagner is an extravagant planner) took up different sections of the room. There was a place for Bud Wiggins, who will return in a forthcoming sequel titled Grand Mal, part of an eventual Bud Wiggins Quartet to be called Scriptures. Another area was laid aside for two other projected novels, Memorial and Inferno.
Then there was the film-and-television area. Wagner has a blind script deal with Sony, meaning he doesn’t have to pitch projects but can hand in whatever he wants. In the last year he’s written four pilot scripts, two of which are based on his own novels. He has adapted I’ll Let You Go (his own favorite among his books, and one that has very little to do with Hollywood) for Fox, and Still Holding for Showtime. He’s also writing an original show for Sony and another for FX. "I’m very fast when it comes to scripts," he told me. "Once you get the hang of writing for TV, it’s fun, like a jigsaw puzzle."
The director David Cronenberg, another friend, wants to direct Wagner's screenplay Maps to the Stars, which Wagner describes as "an operatic ghost story." It’s about a young boy who is the biggest TV star in America — and also a heroin addict. As with a lot of Wagner’s projects, its seeds can be found in earlier works, in this case Wild Palms, the phantasmagoric comic strip about a cabal of Hollywood Fascists Wagner created for Details magazine in 1990 and later turned into an overhyped television miniseries produced by Oliver Stone in 1993.
It was Wagner’s comic strip — an early example of the "graphic novel," perhaps — that first brought him to the attention of the New York Observer’s cultural critic, Ron Rosenbaum, who told me he found Wild Palms "addictively fascinating" when he first read it and decided to check out Force Majeure as a result. "I’m a big, big fan of Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West, that whole dark L.A. thing, but I think he has transcended localism, because L.A. has transcended locale. It’s the global nerve center of the culture, not an exotic colony anymore," Rosenbaum said. "There aren’t many contemporary novelists whose work I look forward to more than his. I find myself surprised, impressed, by his willingness to go way out on a limb in various ways, and keep me reading. I thought you couldn’t get any darker than I’m Losing You, but Still Holding was his summa of darkness. It’s also a challenging book, because he’s so courageously deadpan. He gives you these monsters talking in their own heads, and doesn’t comment on them. You don’t know how to react to the spiritual content. Is it sincerity, satire or both?"
A much harsher view comes from the novelist Gary Indiana, who thinks Wagner may be a little too close to Hollywood for his own good. "It’s always tricky to be a screenwriter and novelist at the same time," he told me over the phone. "When you pick up a novel, you expect to be told the truth about things, and not just the gossip about things. ‘Thin’ is the word that comes to mind when I think about his work, and that’s not to say he doesn’t have tremendous talent, because he does. But it’s a little facile. I think he should take a sabbatical from Hollywood and get out in the real world."
Asked whether he thought Wagner’s novels had any merit as satires of Hollywood and the movie industry in general, Indiana replied that they did to a degree, but that the satire was marred by a surreptitious pandering. "He’s cruel to people it’s safe to be cruel to, but he’s happy to let us know he’s friends with Carrie Fisher and Diane Keaton. If he had real guts as a writer he’d satirize those people, because I don’t think anyone survives in that business without a few hairs on them. It’s so easy to attack David Geffen and other people who are thinly disguised. Make some real enemies if you want to be a satirist. I have!"
"The idea that I’m pandering — it’s an interesting notion," Wagner said when I brought this up with him. "In other words, how have I benefited? In my mind — and I may be delusional — I don’t write about Hollywood. I write coincidentally about Hollywood because it’s the place I physically inhabit. But I’m not a player. Producers don’t say, ‘Get me Bruce Wagner!’"
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 . . ."
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."
Wagner himself pointed to The Great Gatsby as an inspiration, though it’s the atmosphere Fitzgerald’s novel evokes, more than the novel itself, that he admires. When he describes the book, he almost sounds as if he were discussing a musical composition rather than a literary one.
"I wanted to create a mood, and create something tender and ineffable, and to create that space of overlap where the reader has a new imagining that is notset down on the page. The brevity of the piece, and the simplicity and the violence and the almost gentility of what was expressed, hopefully combines to make something that’s unforgettable in a way that’s personal to each reader. It sounds a little highfalutin and complex, but that’s what I wanted to do with this."
Now well into middle age, Wagner claims he has never felt more creative, or as excited about the enterprise of fiction, not to mention movies and television. He adheres to no strict schedule, and unless he is facing a deadline, writes only when he feels like writing. But he feels like writing a lot. Like his fictional alter ego, Bud Wiggins, he is an indefatigable narrative dreamer.
"Los Angeles is a wellspring of stories for me," he said as we drove away from Beverly Hills, back toward the ocean and the setting sun. "I haven’t come to the end of it, and I can’t see the end of it. It truly is a muse for me."
From The Chrysanthemum Palace
Wagner’s new novel is the story of Bertie Krohn, the only child of Perry Krohn, creator of TV’s longest-running space opera,Starwatch: The Navigators. Bertie recounts the last months in the lives of his two friends, Clea Freemantle, daughter of a legendary movie star, and Thad Michelet, author, actor and son of literary titan Jack Michelet. In this scene, adapted for theWeekly, Bertie meets Thad’s literary agent, Miriam Levine, for drinks — and more.
She suggested the lobby of the Marmont. I said we might run into Thad and Clea, implying I didn’t have the energy for another group encounter. She waited two seconds before saying we could have drinks in her room. (That was a surprise.) I followed her car, smiling and trembling to something unknown for cello on KCRW. We were stripped and ecstatically entangled within minutes of entering her small, back-of-hotel suite. It’d been months since I had taken anyone to bed and maybe years since a seduction was effected with such little effort. The expedience of it worked absolute wonders for my spirit. I felt as if in my early 20s again — we did all the nasty, glorious things new lovers do. (Another surprise.) We were ravenous, leaving no patch of flesh unturned, then starved for food, drink and sleep . . . automatically stirring at the hour of the wolf to couple with that edge of violent, sorrowful passion befitting 3 a.m. When morning came, we sat in capacious white robes munching muesli and eggs on burnt toast, washing everything down with great gulps of juice like it was our first and last meal on this insanely beautiful blue-green Earth.
I was on the toilet when the phone rang.
I heard her gasp, then came back to the room and listened.
Jack Michelet was dead.
The funeral was at Martha’s Vineyard. Thad begged Clea to come and she, in turn, begged me. She needn’t have: I knew Miriam would be going and I was very sexed up. To be perfectly frank. Besides, life had become a dull shuttle between AA meetings, the gym, Starwatch tapings and reluctant dinner dates — I looked forward to a geographical break in routine, especially one promising to be historically memorable.
The burial took place on Saturday, amid bright sun and nipping cold while the salty seawater, ever near, rhythmically murmured the Lord giveth . . . the Lord taketh away. Michelet’s death was an international event, and the presence of journalists and paparazzi permeated the Vineyard, lending a cockeyed, festive, Día de los Muertos vibe.
Comments from the makeshift podium seemed par for the posthumous course: from the heart, the head, the ego, the groin. Hardly anyone was sober, and the ones who were, for all the cringeworthiness of their remarks, may as well have been stoned to the gills. It does seem fairly harmless, though, to list a small roster of mourners: ancient mariners Styron, Mailer, Vonnegut and Vidal, with Hitchens, Auster, Wallace and Lethem representing the new. A half-dozen unlikely show-biz types paid homage as well: Sumner Redstone, Ron and Ellen Perelman, Steve Martin (Joyce Carol Oates on his arm!), Jim Belushi, Daryl Hannah and Carly Simon (I assumed the last three were neighbors). And last, but not least, Nicole Kidman, willowy, alabastrine, and regal red. Supposedly she had optioned Michelet’s penultimate book.
I became separated from my group and stood sheepishly on the fringe, bending an ear to discern the minister’s words as the wind kicked up, with that nagging outsider feeling — wondering why I’d come.
Bruce Wagner, with James Ellroy, Dana Delany and Beverly D’Angelo, will read fromThe Chrysanthemum Palace at Skylight Books (Feb. 4, 7:30 p.m.), Book Soup (Feb. 8, 7:30 p.m.), Dutton’s Beverly Hills (Feb. 10, 7 p.m.), Vroman’s (Feb. 15, 7 p.m.) and Brentano’s (Feb. 18, 7 p.m.).