by Bruce Wagner
Published by Simon and Schuster
349 pages, 2003
Invasion of the Hollywood Body Snatchers
Reviewed by David Abrams
If Hollywood is a Dream Factory, then novelist Bruce Wagner reminds us it can also be a nightmare. In Force Majeur, I'm Losing You and I'll Let You Go, he shines a klieg light on Beverly Hills' vain, greedy and depraved. And that's just the housekeeping staff.
No one is spared the arsenic flowing from Wagner's pen. He names names, he skewers studios, he spreads mayhem like it was cell-phone brain cancer. You have to wonder if he'll ever eat lunch in that town again.
Wagner, himself a writer-actor-producer-director (TV's Wild Palms), is the latest in the line of Hollywood writers who turn a funhouse mirror on La-La Land. Nathanael West (The Day of the Locust), Budd Schulberg (What Makes Sammy Run?) and Michael Tolkin (The Player) carried the cross before him. Some were better writers than Wagner, but few were as merciless, or as funny. In his new novel, Still Holding, there's a hilarious scene where a reigning sitcom queen issues instructions to her assistant while seated on the toilet. Defamation during defecation is just one small example of how relentless the author can be in deflating the balloon-heads around him.
Wagner's characters -- some real, some fictional -- are soaked in booze, steeped in drugs, surgically-attached to their cell phones, blissed out with yoga and fueled by ego. His huge, Dickensian casts can be divided into two basic groups: those who are clawing their way to fame and those who already perch atop Celebrity Mountain but are paranoid they'll topple off any minute. Where the two halves of Hollywood society meet is where Wagner excels at sharpening his razor.
In Still Holding, aspiring actress Becca Mondrain is pulling herself up the slope, inch by desperate inch. Her biggest break so far came when she landed a part as a corpse on Six Feet Under. But most of her marketable future rests on the fact that she bears an uncanny resemblance to Drew Barrymore. Becca belongs to that bizarre sub-culture of celebrity look-alikes, average guys and gals like you and me who are constantly getting comments from strangers like, "Hey, you know who you remind me of?" The celebrity doubles get work at car shows, birthday parties and any place that can't afford to pay the real thing to make an appearance. Becca uses her Drewness to gain entry to the middle levels of glitterati society.
Her looks had got her in the door, and of that she wasn't going to be ashamed. She was determined to be assessed by her merits as an actress alone. The others -- the cheap Cameron and the Kit, the sleazo Billy Bob and the off-the-rack Benicio -- were lame and starstruck. They looked sad and out of place, like the losers left standing in musical chairs. She hoped the people who mattered would see through her Drewness to the Becca Mondrain within.
Lucky for her, Being John Malkovich's Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman are planning a movie about celebrity look-alikes and they've got their eye on Becca, as well as her new boyfriend Rusty, a Russell Crowe wannabe who has the Aussie's hot-temper down pat.
As she makes her way higher in society, Becca gets a job as a personal assistant to TV sitcom star Viv Wembley, whose boyfriend is Kit Lightfoot, People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive"). Viv and Kit are a thinly-disguised Jennifer and Brad. Most other characters are not so thinly-disguised -- Wagner drops names like a porn actor drops trou.
Kit's about to make a movie with Darren (Requiem for a Dream) Aronofsky called Special Needs in which an actor studying for the part of a mentally handicapped character is in a car accident which leaves him "neurologically impaired." It's I Am Sam meets Charly collides with A Beautiful Mind. Before shooting can get underway, however, Kit's conked on the head by an enraged autograph-seeker (damn irony!) and is reduced to something resembling a rutabaga with a good L.A. tan. It's a case of art dictating life.
Meanwhile, we've already met the novel's third main character, Lisanne, an overweight secretary who dreams of someday being worthy to scrub the grout from Kit Lightfoot's bathroom tile. Lisanne is afraid of flying and is into group sex and yoga. There are some graphic sex scenes -- most of which are as funny as they are shocking and all of which are unprintable here. There is more genital rubbing going on in these pages than at the average Playboy Mansion party. But it's all in the dark name of satire. Unfortunately, Lisanne turns out to be the least interesting of the novel's cavalcade of characters.
Still Holding runs into trouble the longer it goes on (sort of like David Lynch's Twin Peaks series). Wagner's manic energy starts to wane at least 100 pages before the end.
For being such a sleekly-written book, Still Holding drags its feet like it was wearing cement shoes from an episode of The Sopranos. The plot bogs down with endless digressions about Buddhism, navel-gazing and mental illness. It's as if Nathanael West had lived to turn into a late-period Marlon Brando. Still Holding is a scathing portrait of modern Hollywood, but you have to rip out half the pages to find that book. Somewhere, underneath all that Botoxed prose and siliconed sentences is the flesh of a really sharp, slim story. What Wagner really needs an editor willing to surgically remove the bloat which weighs down his story. | January 2004
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.