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Big payoffs

Memorial A Novel Bruce Wagner Simon & Schuster: 512 pp., $26

September 03, 2006|Meghan Daum | Meghan Daum is a writer and weekly columnist for The Times' opinion page.

BACK in the old days, you knew you'd made it when your name appeared in the crossword puzzle of a major newspaper. Today, that high-water mark is mention in a Bruce Wagner novel. The author of the well-known "cellphone trilogy" ("I'm Losing You," "I'll Let You Go" and "Still Holding") and last year's "The Chrysanthemum Palace," Wagner also writes for the screen and is about as close to being a Hollywood insider as a writer of complete sentences can get.

Wagner does not so much pepper his books with the names of the rich, famous and conspicuously aspirational as dump an entire spice rack onto the pages and leave the reader gasping for air. If Wagner put his name-drops in boldface, gossip column-style, his books would have the blocklike appearance of e-mails in which the sender is virtually screaming at the recipient: Larry King, Melissa Mathison, Stella McCartney!!!

All these names, and more, appear within the first 18 pages of Wagner's new novel, "Memorial." This actually shows great restraint by the author, who managed to mention five movie stars, an Hermes scarf and the Beverly Hills restaurant Crustacean on the first page of "Still Holding." Some might want to read "Memorial" with a computer nearby so they can check the Internet for every elusive reference. But for all his status obsession, Wagner is not a snob. His references are designed less for public consumption (or humiliation) than as a way of letting us in on characters whose interior lives consist mainly of comparing themselves to others.

"Memorial" is a family story played out against a backdrop of high-tax-bracket seediness. The Herlihy family is reasonably well-heeled but splintered, alienated and desperate for something its members can't quite put their fingers on. There's Joan, a 37-year-old architect gunning for a billionaire's high-profile commission of a memorial for victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami. Her 41-year-old brother, Chester (Chess), is a mostly out-of-work location scout who lives in West Hollywood in a converted garage owned by Don Knotts' daughter, Karen.

Their mother, Marjorie, long ago abandoned by their father and recently widowed by her second husband, lives in Beverlywood. When not entertaining girlish dreams of visiting India, she measures her days in lottery tickets. Meanwhile, unbeknown to any of them, Raymond Rausch, the estranged husband and father, is living with Ghulpa, his 42-year-old Indian lover, in the city of Industry.

Early in the book, Chess thinks he's scouting a location for his best friend, Maurie Levin, and finds himself facing a crazed, gun-wielding hillbilly. After hurling himself into a wall and urinating in his pants, he realizes that the whole episode is being filmed for a reality show called "Friday Night Frights." Convinced he has nerve damage, Chess descends into a vortex of chronic pain that "migrated and stabbed, pulsed and tingled, and didn't relent." Soon, he's addicted to painkillers and obsessed with suing "Friday Night Frights."

When not lending money to her son or comforting her neighbor, whose King Charles Spaniel, Mr. Pahrump, has been diagnosed with cancer, Marjorie buys Lotto tickets from a neighborhood liquor store run by a family from Bombay. An eternal optimist, she proves an easy target for a band of sophisticated con artists, who tell her she's won $6 million in a "shadow drawing of the New York State Lottery called The Blind Sister." Sworn to secrecy by a "Special Programs Division" agent named Lucas Weyerhauser, Marjorie ultimately forks over her life savings and suffers a violent attack that foreshadows a more brutal incident to come.

Joan spends her days with her business partner (and sometime lover) Barbet, working on the entry for the tsunami memorial. In her spare time, she sleeps with a consul general from India, as well as the billionaire who commissioned the memorial. Although, in some ways, she's the least sharply drawn character -- her architectural ambitions seem curiously dispassionate; she also doesn't seem to have any friends she hasn't bedded -- Joan is the one who pushes this freight train of a story to its destination by eventually seeking out the absent patriarch, Ray.

We meet Ray early on, but it isn't immediately clear he's part of the family. Once we learn this, however, we kind of like the family a little more. Sealed off from the bourgey detritus of show business references and "starchitects" (a favorite sobriquet of Wagner's here; you can almost see him up at night registering the URL for starchitect.com), Ray's sections of the novel are as palate-cleansing as they are mildly depressing. At 76, Ray is awaiting a cash settlement from Industry after police officers accidentally busted into his apartment, shot his dog and caused him to have a mild heart attack.

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