Lethem later ended up cameoed in "The Chrysanthemum Palace." Wagner placed "me at a funeral for a famous writer," said Lethem, who was a bit taken aback. "You feel weirdly threatened or appropriated. Why am I there? I returned the favor in my novel 'You Don't Love Me Yet.' I put Bruce in a crowd scene."
The son of a producer-turned-stockbroker, Wagner was born in Wisconsin and grew up in Beverly Hills. "Gilligan's Island" star Tina Louise was a guest at his bar mitzvah. He was friends "with the children of the famous, an impossible burden I always felt; [they are] buried alive, in essence." After dropping out of high school — "I couldn't see where that was going" — he worked in bookstores, including Campbell's in Westwood, and wrote scripts and stories for films, among them "Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills" and "A Nightmare on Elm Street 3."
He says by 30 he was "deeply unsatisfied" and turned more toward writing prose. He read Fitzgerald's Pat Hobby stories about an alcoholic screenwriter. "I wanted to go much further than Fitzgerald had gone," he says, "[His] stories were written for money at the end of his life. They were kind of howls.... But I wanted to explore the personal darkness that was mine."
Such darkness could be glimpsed careening through town with the rich and the wounded. "Driving a limousine was very similar to driving an ambulance. You had people in extremis," says Wagner, who appears briefly as a chauffeur in "Maps to the Stars" and whose 1991 debut novel, "Force Majeure," follows the sordid life of screenwriter/limo driver Bud Wiggins. "You had people who were extremely famous: Olivia de Havilland, Mick Jagger. You had people renting limos to appear to be famous."
Behind the wheel of an ambulance, Wagner, once married to actress Rebecca De Mornay, picked up vagrants along roads and railways, including people with "gaping bedsores filled with maggots. We'd bring them to county general and nurses would pour buckets of kerosene into their open wounds to kill the maggots … I was in morgues for the first time and saw the dead. An epic event for me to see the dead. The body desecrated by pathologists."
His mother, who worked for decades at Saks Fifth Avenue, died in her sleep at home not long ago. She was 88 and had dementia. "It was a tidy end … she had a good death … not a blossoming black-and-blue mark on her from being manhandled by emergency room care workers."
Death and spirituality, notably Buddhism, infuse much of his writing. He is not a Buddhist but is intimate with its teachings and the smugness in which the West's affluent often embrace the religion. His new novellas in "The Empty Chair" include a Buddhist living in Big Sur. "My books," he says, "have always had a spiritual component to them … without transcendence you have a closed set." Kit Lightfoot, a movie star in "Still Holding," a novel from 2003, is a practicing Buddhist depicted thus: "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."
Wagner exudes the fascination of a Hollywood blogger trolling for dirt. His novels drop more names than a publicist — BlackBerry aglow — tilted against an open bar during awards season. In "Dead Stars," Michael Douglas undergoes chemo/radiation and maneuvers to remake Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz" while Catherine Zeta-Jones guest stars on "Glee." Celebrities in "Still Holding," such as Drew Barrymore and Russell Crowe, must contend with look-alikes rented out to parties in their stead. It all simmers in a scabrous stew of news, gossip and titillation where the gold-plated famous mingle, sin and cajole with their wannabe lessers.
Hollywood then and now
The culture and antics of Hollywood have remained rather constant over the years but, he says, the money is different. "I really look at change in Hollywood not artistically [but in] what has changed financially." He adds: "You're shocked to learn that a movie has made $1 billion and you find out that most of the profit was made in Europe or China" or other countries.
His haunts have also changed over time, except for a few, such as Versailles, a Cuban restaurant where he used to eat with writer and shaman Carlos Castaneda. When he's depressed, he says, one might find him with "Carl's Jr. / KFC box lunches eaten in car at random beach parking lots."
It's pushing noon. The Soho House is filling up. The hills are bright, fake almost, like the collision of a cartoon and the real world. "You enter the dream that was created for you," he says. Soon, Wagner, his black coat draped over a chair, will descend his perch and disappear, likely responding to emails and checking the latest grist from the town he's fluent in. He's reached that point in life where art is more intimate and craft intensely personal.
"You write for the sheer joy of it," he says. "The way a runner runs or the way a musician plays. You're no longer writing for the critics. You're no longer writing even for the readers" — he smiles —"perhaps my great flaw."