We gave it a B
Writers sometimes write exposes of Hollywood, and for all I know moths sometimes write exposes of flames. Chewing thoughtfully on the hand that feeds them, writers who lease their souls to the movie industry assure us that Hollywood routinely robs them of their integrity, sobriety, matrimony, and money. On the other hand, the pay’s good, and if the business does destroy you, maybe the studios will take an option on your story. The road from Grub Street to Grub Boulevard is paved with muddled intentions. As is Force Majeure, Bruce Wagner’s first novel. It’s venomous, scabrous, and in shade of humor, pitch-black. It relentlessly exposes Hollywood’s foul mouths, drugged synapses, greased palms, and moist genitals, but it doesn’t quite know when to quit, sharing its subject’s bent for excess. The book tries hard to be heartless — it’s full of clever, nasts about as malicious as anything in Evelyn Waugh’s merciless L.A. satire The Loved One — but lurking inside the satirical machine is the ghost of adolescent self-pity. An alternate title might be Holden Caulfield Meets the Day of the Locusts. As it delivers its swift kicks, it pouts. But you can still savor the unsavory details.
The laconic dust jacket tells us only that ”Bruce Wagner lives in Los Angeles,” which is reassuring — if he lived in Fargo, N.D., he would have to have a morbid imagination, but as it is he just has good eyesight. The note that accompanies the excerpt that recently appeared in Esquire is more talkative: Wagner, ”formerly an obsequious limo driver,” has had a hand in several movie scripts. It’s thus no coincidence, in a coincidence-laden book, that Bud Wiggins, an antihero who has made a fine art out of failure, drives a limo to support himself while not finishing screenplays. In his 30s, he has the standard aspiring- screenwriter’s résumé: school dropout, halfway-house graduate, odd jobs, odder love life, best friend dead of overdose, credit-card debt up to his ears.
The novel has a downward trajectory rather than a plot, as Bud lurches from episode to episode accompanied by a large cast of gargoyles: a homicidal convict-author; a gay studio head who cruises the freeways; a beautiful tattoo artist with a disfiguring facial tumor; a brilliant script doctor who periodically becomes a bag lady ranting madly into public phones. Bud, caroming from bogus story conference to parties to group therapy to a case of Mexican dysentery, occasionally stops to pine and ponder over boyhood memories, lost-cause girlfriends, bouts of impotence, and his own submerged Jewishness, but the novel makes short work of any sympathy the reader may develop for him; his carnal knowledge gets to be much too encyclopedic.
Wagner’s prose is tirelessly corrosive: Agents ”bob like buoys in the cloacal tide”; a bank teller has ”shiny, pockmarked cheeks that gave way to baby’s-bottom jowls”; AA regulars are ”professional rememberers, torch singers with poisoned psalms.” The novel is an elaboration on S.J. Perelman’s view of Hollywood as a ”dreary industrial town controlled by hoodlums of enormous wealth.” But it’s not as farcical as Perelman, or as mordant as Waugh or Nathanael West. It’s an impressive heap of sour mash, but it should have been distilled. B