Nailing Hollywood

Melvin Jules Bukiet, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, is the author of numerous books, including "A Faker's Dozen," a story collection.

Hollywood has attracted novelists -- like moths to the projector? -- since its first flickering images scared theatergoers into thinking a train was coming straight at them. Writers like William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald and, especially, Nathanael West couldn't resist the place, whether they worked there or lived there, whether they envied or loathed it. Despite (or entirely because of) its unique combination of shabbiness and grandeur, Hollywood enticed them with glorious gushers of greenbacks as well as with the stuff that any author's dreams are made of: a Great Subject. Yet in recent years most Hollywood fiction has been like most Hollywood movies: a gross spectacle of fancy cars and broken glass. One of the few authors who has managed to convey Hollywood's inanity, vulgarity and venality without partaking of those qualities is Bruce Wagner. Undoubtedly the foremost chronicler of the place since West, whose work his echoes in both vitriol and eloquence, he has pursued this vision from his first novel, "Force Majeur," through the initial two segments of a "Cellular Trilogy," to that sequence's culmination in this season's acidic new offering, "Still Holding."

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that I have never seen a Drew Barrymore movie, but Bruce Wagner does not share my egregious lack. He not only knows who Drew Barrymore is, he knows enough about her and the machine that created her to create Becca Mondrain, a Drew Barrymore look-alike and would-be actress who aspires to someday give rise to Becca Mondrain look-alikes. Along with Becca, hunky Buddhist megastar Kit Lightfoot and obese, flight-phobic show-biz secretary Lisanne McCadden are the pivots of "Still Holding."

The narrative of Wagner's book is pure story-within-story metafiction. Kit, himself a famous actor, is interested in playing the role of a famous actor who plays the role of a brain-damaged man and then suffers his own brain damage in a car accident. Kit's torpid off-screen brain is equivalently damaged by a liquor-bottle-wielding look-alike offended at having been refused an autograph. That look-alike is the friend of another look-alike, who is dating Becca, who hopes for a role in the movie etc. etc. etc. -- all leading up to a script "strikingly inept, contrived and off-point ... enough to put any project on a fast track to production." In the scores of subsequent short chapters that rattle along the pages as fast as that first train hurtling across the screen, we watch the novice Buddhist Lisanne striving to unite with Kit on both a karmic and -- despite his drooling dementia -- physical plane.

Meanwhile the real Drew and a slew of just plain folks who seldom need more than first names float through the novel, throwing parties, taking meetings, gossiping with one another and with the novel's fictional characters. "Still Holding" is so au courant that it refers to real movies that haven't come out yet, but even a reader who can't tell Drew Barrymore from Barry White (one of the few pop culture figures not mentioned somewhere in these pages) can appreciate the giddy intellectual fun Wagner has by giving his fictional look-alike star billing in a novel in which the actual actress is merely an extra.

As always, Wagner evinces a fine ghoulish relish for those aspects of human nature that are Hollywood's stock in trade: avarice, covetousness, vainglorious self-promotion, self-delusion and the infinite gradations of degradation and despair. His instinct is showcased in various side stories involving, among others, an elderly couple producing a pornographic reality show with the multimillion-dollar proceeds of a legal suit over the negligence death of their daughter, a feckless heir to a techno-fortune, obligatory film potentates and their minions, agents, lawyers, shrinks, hangers-on and the "troops of saffron-robed monks" who tend the quasi-comatose gravy train Kit.

Unlike Wagner's previous books, however, "Still Holding" has a touch of decency. The main characters aren't quite the psychotic losers he's reveled in before. Lisanne finds something akin to nirvana in her (perhaps too easily ironic) last flight, Kit recovers from his close encounter with a liquor bottle and makes an appearance on a TV talk show with sincerity and even grace, and Becca may actually prove herself capable of more than impersonating La Barrymore at industrial shows. Although this uncharacteristic generosity provides less belligerent fun than Wagner's earlier work, there's still enough despicable behavior to satisfy.

Above all, what keeps a reader holding on till the last page of "Still Holding" is Wagner's prose, which combines high oratory with low vernacular. (He may be the only living writer who could come up with the hilariously perverted Shakespearean pun "Perchance to ream.") And here he is describing the seedy neighborhood to which Kit's crass, media-manipulating father has taken the son he once abandoned and now embraces as the devoted parent of the world's most lucrative vegetable: "[C]ries and whispers of unpaid alimony ... grapefruit-sized divorce tumors sprouting in the domestic loam of cervical pain.... [S]melled all the old smells -- witchily raising the zoological mist of ... tinctured brew of athlete's foot, jock rot, and unwashed crack, ne'er-do-well cologne and thirty-dollar parvenu deodorant, Lavoris mouth and pimply charisma -- invoked even the dark, mystic feelings of wet-leafed trees and their vermin, damp streets and window frames, sodden ungathered newspapers, oil-stained driveways and insular neighborhood smells, leavened by the crisp spice and blue smoke of things exaltedly autumnal. The airspace itself spoke in rapturous tongues of suburban decay."

That rapture of decay, physical and emotional, is Wagner's ultimate subject, and he's lucky to have a place that feeds his imagination so well. For a writer, a territory to be mined is a precious thing. Imagine Dickens without London, Dostoevsky without St. Petersburg. It's like that for Bruce Wagner and Hollywood. He owns this fetid, steaming lump of a town. *


From Still Holding

Kit Lightfoot was in his trailer meditating.

He was thirty-four and had meditated at least an hour a day for nearly a dozen years without fail. Out of carefully enforced humility, he had never shared that statistic with anyone, though the urge to do so frequently came upon him. Whenever he felt the pride of a Zen valedictorian, he smiled and soldiered on, letting the feeling wash over him....

His career as an actor had barely been launched when a friend turned him on to Buddhism. He took up meditating and, a short while after, visited a monastery on Mount Baldy. It was freezing cold.... Monks and dedicated laypersons came and went like solemn, dignified cadets amidst the ritualized cadence of drums, chanting, and silence.... He watched a man being ordained and later found out he had once been a powerful Hollywood agent. Kit grooved to that kind of convert. He loved having blundered into this magisterially abstract Shangri-la of the spirit, a flawless diamond-pointed world that might liberate him from the bonds of narcissism, the bonds of self.

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