Los Angeles author Bruce Wagner’s new novel, Still Holding , the third in a trilogy that began with I’m Losing You and I’ll Let You Go , arrives cosseted in praise from the literary establishment. “A visionary posing as a farceur,” gushes Salman Rushdie on the back jacket. “Writes like a wizard and knows his Hollywood”-this from John Updike, tucked discreetly inside.
Mr. Wagner, who said he wrote “kind of with the top down, headed toward Big Sur in a sense-pedal to the metal,” declared himself pleased that the L.A. Times , which had previously assigned his work to what he called a “stunt reviewer” from the film industry, had this time handed it off to a legitimate academic. But though he subtitled his latest book “A Novel of Hollywood,” and although the titles of the novels in the trilogy are nakedly drawn from cell-phone jargon, Mr. Wagner continues to fret about being pigeonholed as a “Hollywood novelist”: not a novelist who happens to live in L.A., such as The Lovely Bones ‘ Alice Sebold, but rather one who writes about Hollywood in the metonymical as well as geographical sense: the movie stars, the rich kids, the drugs. (“You’ll find yourself thinking: This is the great Hollywood novel,” Bret Easton Ellis writes magnanimously of Still Holding ).
“I’m not in the club,” Mr. Wagner said against a backdrop of shimmery surf at Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica, a hotel decorated in oxymoronic New England deluxe. “I’m not gonna get the Guggenheim, you know. There’s such a bias, a facile idea that there’s no such thing as ‘real’ writing here. It’s like the real, serious work is going on in Brooklyn, or those writer-workshop places, like Iowa or something.”
The man had a point. Remember last spring, when movie star Renee Zellweger announced that she was moving from Los Angeles to New York because she wanted to “go to a literary party” for a change? God, that grated. Ooh, a lit’ry party! Like that James Wood book bash last summer at the Algonquin, which was filled with mid-level editors from The New York Review of Books and The Times Magazine -you can’t even begin to imagine the smug, glazed look that settled on their faces when the phrase “Los Angeles” was dropped into the conversation; one might as well have relocated to the moon. Yes, it would be fun to see the star of the Bridget Jones series try her luck at such a party.
Surely she’d feel more at home at the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard this Nov. 23, when James Ellroy and Carrie Fisher will fête Still Holding, an occasionally grisly and intermittently hilarious exploration of Buddhism and mortality.
“I’m sure that the book is going to be misread on different levels as something satirical that is denigrating Buddhism or spirituality, but it’s the opposite of that,” Mr. Wagner said, knitting a refreshingly un-Botoxed brow. “I didn’t want to write something along the lines of Evelyn Waugh. I was writing really from my gut. No, I’m not a Buddhist, but I’m very familiar with Buddhism. I felt that no one had written about Buddhism in Hollywood, and I was sort of puzzled why.”
There are plenty of celebrity cameos in Still Holding , including the Charlie’s Angels triad and hipster power couple Sofia Coppola and Spike Jonze, whom the author says he has “met en passant -but I don’t socialize with them.”
The phenomenon of celebrity look-alikes, which Mr. Wagner previously explored for Talk magazine (he’s not a snob about celebrity profiles either, having just “done” Keanu Reeves for Details) , is also a major motif. “I really became possessed with this theme, the look-alike,” he said. “I later learned that because I’m an Aries, I have an innate interest in twins and doubles.”
The author, who turns 50 in March and insists he’s “not having any issues about it,” has been compared to Dickens, Celine and Nathanael West, but seems to be nursing a mild sour stomach about his critical rep. “I’m trying to channel this gravitas toward what I do,” he said. “You get absolutely plastered with that label, ‘Hollywood writer.’ What does it mean, Nathanael West? What does it mean? What does anyone know about Nathanael West?”
He was digging into a semiotically confusing repast of Caesar salad with chicken, bread and butter, French fries and Diet Coke. “I’m not in the Mona Simpson world,” he said, referring to the author of Anywhere But Here , which was made into a Susan Sarandon–Natalie Portman flick that is often shown on cross-country flights. “I’m really under the radar in some weird way. In California, it’s like you’re either Jackie Collins or Joan Didion-and I like Joan Didion, but it’s like the very Santa Ana winds have a Didion copyright. It’s very odd to me.”
In his physical self-presentation, Mr. Wagner does little to discourage the Easterner’s fanciful construct of a Hollywood man of letters as cuddly mascot. Tall and bald, with thick salt-and-pepper face stubble, he was wearing a gold-beaded spider pin on the lapel of his black Commes des Garçons suit, one of those striped shirts that French sailors supposedly wear, motocross boots and square sunglasses that he removed only once, in an apparent gesture of politeness. “I’m like the original metrosexual,” he said.
He drives a big black Cadillac Escalade S.U.V. and lives alone in a Frank Gehry “townhouse-slash-loft” near Bergamot Station; his romantic history includes a yearlong marriage to Risky Business star Rebecca De Mornay, whom he met “under glamorous circumstances” at the Cannes Film Festival.
“Shit-a long time ago,” he said. “For the most part, people think I’m gay. That’s my vibe. I think when people find out that I was married to this sexpot, it’s like even further proof that I’m gay.”
He grew up “Beverly Hills poor,” his parents divorcing when he was 13. His father is a retired stockbroker living in Florida and his mother-“a tough woman”-has worked for many years in the luxury personal-shopping division of Saks Fifth Avenue, where the movie version of Steve Martin’s novel Shopgirl is currently being filmed.
“I had the ultimate Hollywood experience last night,” Mr. Wagner said, describing how one of his friends, the director David Cronenberg, took him to watch Shopgirl footage being shot on top of Mt. Olympus. (Mr. Cronenberg’s favored director of photography, Peter Suschitzky, is also D.P. for Shopgirl .) “This brisk Los Angeles night!” said Mr. Wagner. “With little Claire Danes on the bed and Steve Martin feeding her lines …. ”
“I think that’s David Blaine,” he whispered helpfully, inclining his head toward a nondescript man with a knapsack who had wandered out on the balcony.
Still Holding has been optioned for the screen with Dermot Mulroney attached; it might be a series for cable TV; Mr. Wagner said he enjoys the “unbelievably riveting” A&E reality series Parole Board . Though he thinks of himself as a novelist first, he has directed two movies and is anxious to hop back up into the chair, for that confers a legitimacy in this town that pecking at the keyboard never will.
“Mostly, people don’t read,” he said. “They don’t have a big awareness of that. The movie world-unless you’ve written The Da Vinci Code, there’s no real knowledge. You can be on the cover of The Los Angeles Times Book Review and people don’t have a clue that your book is out. No one reads books. In fact, I was at a party recently where the writer said some harsh things about celebrities, and those celebrities were there-having a great time!”