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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.”


213, 323, 310: Wagner's dead
cell phone collection


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 (“Jackass DVD 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.

“Hey, cunt.”

“I’m sorry?”

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 is on their radar? What novelists are
they 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
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.

“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.”

[




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 Weekly staffer
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 Majeure came 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 steal it 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.


Studio tour


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 fourth party, 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 Variety for 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 he cut
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 care about 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 not set 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 the
Weekly, 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 from
The 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.).