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Dark Side of Rodeo Drive

For his latest novel set in L.A., Bruce Wagner looked to Charles Dickens for inspiration.

January 29, 2002|IRENE LACHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Novelist Bruce Wagner could be the Josephine Baker of the L.A. literary life if the late chanteuse had walked around fully clothed in black. Or perhaps the Jerry Lewis if the comedian were possessed of X-ray vision that penetrated the city's darkest corners. All three have found their best audience thousands of miles from home.

For Baker and Lewis, their most fervent fans hailed from Paris; for Wagner, the hub of appreciation is in New York. This despite--or perhaps, because of--the fact that his work is so strongly identified with Los Angeles.

"My wife used to say, 'Why are you always writing about Rodeo Drive?'" Wagner said dryly about his new book, "I'll Let You Go" (Villard), in a discussion with his longtime friend, actress and author Carrie Fisher at a recent Writers Bloc forum.

But Wagner's street is not your garden-variety Rodeo Drive, the innocent main drag for "Pretty Woman" and pretty women for whom Prada is a birthright. Wagner's metaphorical Rodeo Drive is the boulevard of nightmares, where screenwriters go crazy, mega-producers treat their assistants as sex slaves, and big stars seek solace from drug-pushing doctors.

Such suitors of the apocalypse populated Wagner's earlier novels, "Force Majeure" (Random House, 1991) and "I'm Losing You" (Villard, 1996). Their sting came from his experiences as a screenwriter with a body of work including the edgy TV miniseries "Wild Palms," directed by David Lynch, and the Paul Bartel film, "Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills," among others.

Wagner's insider view of the industry has fascinated some high-profile critics in New York, among them John Updike, who reviewed "I'm Losing You" (about a Hollywood producer who learns he's dying) for the New Yorker. And while the New York Times reviewed the book twice, it went unnoticed by some of L.A.'s media.

"It's a peculiar sort of below-the-radar situation for me sometimes, but that works for and against me," muses Wagner, 47. "If one can still be invisible in a sense, then I think that's a powerful tool, not so much because you can observe in a more fastidious way if you're invisible, but also just in terms of one's own vanity. If one is not given tremendous accolades or attention, I think that's simply better for one's artistic spirit."

To Wagner, more grating than being ignored, which is becoming increasingly unlikely anyway, is being misunderstood. Some critics have tagged him a tedious hipster, at one with the jaded landscape he skewers in his books.

Wagner counters that he's nothing of the sort. "I think there are a lot of very cynical people who misread my work and want me to write about degradation," he says. "And I do write about degradation, but in the context of many other things. I'm not someone who is thrilled with degradation as an end in itself, so this book is a much broader canvas than my last books, much less claustrophobic, much more humane in a sense, and much more traditional in its narrative."

At the moment, Wagner is talking about "I'll Let You Go" in his three-story loft in an austere Frank Gehry building, a residential oddity on an otherwise industrial block in Santa Monica. The front door opens onto an office lined with corkboard, peppered with remnants of Wagner's voraciously eclectic interests that sometimes find their way into his books.

A quick glance dispels any typecasting of Wagner as someone afflicted with entertainment industry myopia. Painted in gold above one corkboard are the words: "The varieties of religious experience." Draped over the piano bench of his baby grand is a Jewish prayer shawl. Wagner leads the way upstairs to the kitchen, an airy balcony overlooking his work space. If his books are not necessarily as they seem to the casual observer, neither is he. He's dressed in his uniform of cool-cat black up to his thick-rimmed glasses. Virtually his entire head is covered in 5 o'clock shadow.

Wagner's friend Fisher says his bad-boy looks have caused misunderstandings. "He's a really kind, tender guy, and that's the surprise of him because he certainly doesn't look like that," she says. "He looks like--dare I say it?--a terrorist. We were in Israel and staying in an old part of Jerusalem, and he kept getting carded. He's a nice Jewish boy who loves his mother."

Indeed, "I'll Let You Go" is dedicated to his mother, Bunny. And critics have noted that the 549-page tome is gentler and more sympathetic than his earlier works. Michiko Kakutani wrote in the New York Times that "I'll Let You Go" is "tender, even sentimental where that earlier novel was corrosive; deliberately old-fashioned where 'I'm Losing You' was willfully, sometimes tiresomely hip."

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