Wagner's latest lays Hollywood all too bare

July 21, 1996|By Donna Rifkind | Donna Rifkind,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"I'm Losing You," by Bruce Wagner. 356 pages. Villard Books. $23.

Nowadays, the saying goes, all Americans have two professions, their own and show business.

True, a lot of us read Movieline in the beauty parlor, or know someone who knows Brad Pitt, or have an opinion about Jim Carrey. But this national passion for star-tracking has led those who actually do work in the film business to a grand misconception: that anyone beyond themselves finds people in the entertainment industry - and I refer not to movie stars but to agents, producers, screenwriters, "development girls" and the like - in any way entertaining.

A more petty, craven and downright monotonous herd of wretched souls has never before existed, I am convinced, in any civilization. Yet it is just these folks whom Bruce Wagner, author of the films "Nightmare on Elm Street 3," "White Dwarf" and "Wild Palms," has chosen as the subjects of two novels, "Force Majeure" (1991) and now "I'm Losing You."

"Force Majeure" was the tale of a hard-luck screenwriter, Bud Wiggins, who falls repeatedly into the cesspool of degradation that is the fate of many a Hollywood loser. Far too long and exhaustingly convoluted, at least here there was a main character posing as tour guide who occasionally elicited a trickle of sympathy or comedy.

If only one could say the same about "I'm Losing You," a book whose title doubles efficiently as its own epitaph. This time Wagner offers an ensemble of voices, often channeled through e-mail messages, cellular phone calls, diary entries and the like. Among this gallery of Hollywood grotesques are a budding actress turned porn star, a smarmier-than-thou agent, a psychiatrist with an all-celebrity clientele, a wacko masseuse, a washed-up talk-show host, a lesbian writer "with a Kathy Acker haircut" and a television producer obsessed with finding the perfect watch.

What do such people do all day? They drive around, accuse each other of stealing projects, occasionally sleep together, and scheme, scheme, scheme. Real movie stars (Holly Hunter, Richard Dreyfuss) make cameo appearances, as if to anchor these cartoon characters to something approaching a real world. Illness is rampant, mostly in the form of cancer and AIDS, to add a frisson of trendy apocalyptic angst. Cleverness is epidemic as well: bad puns and literary allusions ("Do not go gentile into that good night," mingle freely with the show-biz slang du jour: "What was the get-off?").

The novel's overall effect on the reader is undoubtedly something quite different from what Wagner intended. Echoing every Hollywood horror story from "The Day of the Locust" to "You'll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again," the author has tried through satire to make the usual statements about the ruthlessness of a system that routinely eats its own. But Wagner is satirizing the unsatirizable: Even his most outlandish scenarios read like documentary material. The line between satire and reality is so fuzzy, in fact, that all humor and pathos are lost. What's left to readers is Wagner's overwhelming contempt for his ridiculous characters, and the distracting aftertaste of his attention-stealing cleverness.

There's no business like show business, it seems, for sapping this otherwise incisive novelist of any power to frighten, enlighten, or simply entertain.

Donna Rifkind, whose essays and reviews have been published by Commentary, the American Scholar, the New Criterion, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the New York Times, lives in Los Angeles.

Pub Date: 7/21/96

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