It’s possible that being mentioned in a Bruce Wagner novel will become a Hollywood status symbol. His new book, Still Holding (the final installment of what he calls his cell-phone trilogy), is on one level a catalogue of everyone who’s anyone on the left coast. Stars wander freely throughout this hilarious novel, lunching at the Ivy, stopping to chat in the Chateau Marmont courtyard, or bantering lewdly with Wagner’s fictional creations. “Ready, Teddy,” quips Cameron Diaz to Kit Lightfoot, Wagner’s Harrison Ford–ish leading man. “That’s what I’m here for. To be fucked like a righteous animal.”
Still Holding is a weird, coprolaliac amalgam of Buddhism and Us Weekly. The loopy gravity of fame keeps everyone off balance. Besides Lightfoot, there’s an aspiring actress who makes her living as a Drew Barrymore impersonator, a slew of Hollywood bottom-feeders, and a ghetto couple who won a huge settlement from the city after the death of their daughter and are using the proceeds to get into show business.
There’s a Dickensian sprawl to Wagner’s book—it’s a dense 300 pages—as well as a heavy dose of bald Dickensian irony. His characters have an almost innate sense of Hollywood status, a built-in calculator of the valence of any star or producer.
Sitting on his omniscient Victorian throne, Wagner (also a screenwriter, he was briefly married to the actress Rebecca De Mornay) puts his characters through their paces. While the real stars slide through as gods, untouchable, Wagner torments the rest. Researching a part for a Darren Aronofsky movie titled Special Needs, Lightfoot, who’s long been a practicing Buddhist, if a cynical one, visits a psychiatric ward (the same one Harrison Ford visited for Regarding Henry). After a fan Lightfoot has brushed off in a bar attacks him with a bottle, he winds up there himself, with a stroke and brain damage. He’s in a place beyond ego—a holy fool, an accidental Buddhist, beyond thought. His estranged father steps in and takes him under his care, impressing the world with his paternal devotion while trying to pry open the movie star’s coffers.
Still Holding is a parody of a Buddhist tract, full of slogans and bits of wisdom, both profound and ironic. Wagner’s Hollywood is a place where people are fierce and deeply narcissistic but radically powerless; they live in constant fear of this weakness. Their Buddhism is both a style choice and a last resort. Calming, nonjudgmental, more discipline than moral order, it’s the perfect spiritual accessory.
On one level, Wagner’s book is in the venerated tabloid tradition of dirty-laundry-airing. And indeed, there are some Ralph Lauren sheets in dire need—don’t ask—of washing. But Wagner has Something to Say about the sordid. His first book, Force Majeure, was marred by its overlong wallow in infantile sexuality. Here, the sex is outrageous —and repulsive—punctuation. A brain-damaged son watches his father have sex with the son’s high-school sweetheart, during which the son masturbates before losing himself in an episode of C.S.I. Another man has oral sex with a woman who’s nursing a baby. A TV star interrupts her sodomy session with her fiancé’s best friend to make sure her assistant—her chore whore—has picked up the right prescription. We’re even told that in Buddhist doctrine, homeless souls waiting for reincarnation gather near the genitals of a couple having intercourse “like flies on meat.” Wagner thinks this is funny (you can almost see him leering: “Did I shock you?”), and it is funny, this constant going-too-far. It’s shtick; Wagner is working blue, and the laughter is frequent, if uncomfortable.
Sometimes, the horrors of this book are such that one is certain it’s hell, with all its circles of celebrity, Hieronymus Bosch in smoggy sunlight. But really, the effect is more like a Buddhist El Greco, a coil of figures spiraling awkwardly heavenward against a garish backdrop. Of course, heaven is just a word, a direction, and the spiritual is just a way of laundering the ego. But itÂ’s a gorgeous freak show, and part of the pleasure is that Wagner seems to be having so much fun. Really, the joke is on Beverly Hills. In a better world, what would he find to laugh at?