Bruce Wagner's 'Holding': Hollywood, shallow

November 02, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff

Still Holding: A Novel of Hollywood, by Bruce Wagner. Simon & Schuster. 349 pages. $25.

Everyone knows that Hollywood is a shallow place, filled with people who live only for the moment when their lives can be turned into a screenplay running somewhere between 30 and 120 minutes. People there live in absolutely self-centric universes where the only thing that matters is the eternal question, "What's in it for me?" They wouldn't know an original thought if it handed them a business card.

Right?

Believe that, and you're just the reader for Bruce Wagner's Still Holding, a novel about disparate bodies orbiting the bright sun of celebrity. Some venture in close enough to get burned, others barely stay within sight of their energy source, but all measure success by their ability to remain within range of the public eye. It's not a lofty goal, nor an intellectually challenging one, but it's the goal of just about everyone in town -- at least all those portrayed here.

There's Becca, who makes a living off her parents' gene pool, which conspired to make her look just like Drew Barrymore, and her conflicted boyfriend Rusty, the spitting image of Russell Crowe. There's Lisanne, an overweight, under-stimulated executive secretary who's into casual sex and emotional oversimplification; Kit, a Hollywood superstar looking for validation; Burke, his opportunistic, abusive father; and the Dunsmores, Cassandra and Grady, using their multimillion-dollar insurance settlement to open a film studio.

For nearly 300 pages, Still Holding chronicles the odd little lives these people lead, trying to make it in a city where you're only as good as your last Tonight Show appearance. Their lives really aren't much to write about, but therein lies their quirky appeal as characters: not for a moment do you wish you were walking even a foot in their shoes. That doesn't mean they're not fun to read about, but it does prevent them from being all that compelling.

Regardless of what happens -- and there's all manner of things going on in Still Holding, including several pregnancies, an attack that leaves one character in a coma, plenty of illicit couplings and lots of partying -- it's hard to muster enthusiasm beyond a shrug and just enough curiosity to keep the pages turning.

Still, for those who can't get enough of Entertainment Weekly and the carefully coifed hosts of Entertainment Tonight, Still Holding will provide a vicarious thrill. Wagner, a screenwriter (Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills) now on his fourth novel, understands the perception that the streets of L.A. are peppered with movie stars (it's not true, trust me), and the novel includes make-believe cameos from dozens of real-life celebrities. There are directors Darren Aaronofsky (Requiem for a Dream), who wants Kit to star in his next film, and Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich), who's making a film centering on celebrity look-alikes, another oddball project that everyone wants to star in.

Fictitious lines are spoken by Cameron Diaz, Jay Leno, even the Dalai Lama (everyone in Hollywood, it seems, yearns to become a practicing Buddhist). References are made to Edward Norton, Courtney Love, Shirley MacLaine and Nicolas Cage.

Yes, it all sounds like great fun, and Wagner's gift for dialogue keeps the narrative flowing. But there's a problem central to Still Holding that steadfastly avoids a solution: Setting one's novel in a shallow world inhabited by shallow people makes it difficult to come up with anything of substance. Hollywood may be full of hacks, but there's enough genius mucking around in there to make true artistry possible. Now, those people would be worth writing a novel about.

Chris Kaltenbach, a native Baltimorean who reviews and writes about movies for The Sun, has been to Hollywood dozens of time without encountering a single celebrity on the street. He did, however, run into John Waters once at the Valley Cinemas off Reisterstown Road.

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