If I were a character in a Bruce Wagner novel, I would have been born and raised in Los Angeles. My mother, Marjorie, would have married twice—divorced once and widowed once—passing her old age year in relative comfort in tony Beverlywood. My sister, Joan, an also-ran architect, jealous of other architects of her generation, would be flipping out because she’s almost 40 and hasn’t achieved all she wants from her career or from men. My father, Ray, would have left this cuddly family unit when I was only a couple years old. And then there’s me, Chester, a forty-something location scout and relative loser, always seeking, never finding. If the above were so, then you could call my life Memorial.
We are introduced to this Los Angeles family as things begin to fall apart or come together, depending on your point of view. Chester gets taken in as the butt end of a reality show gotcha moment, caught on tape, getting physically banged up in the process. For the remainder of the book he pops pills to fight the pain and hires a pit bull lawyer who promises Chester he’ll wring the production company for all they’re worth. Joan sleeps with most of the men in her life, including the man her company is wooing to land a contract to design and build a memorial for his brother lost in the Asian Tsunami of 2004.
Meanwhile Marjorie gets scammed by a troop of ingenious grifters as they wring her for all she’s worth with a bogus state lottery shadow program called the Blind Sisters. Gullible and lonely (her kids only call when they’re looking for a handout) she willingly gives these very nice people who want to lavish her with secret lottery winnings all the information about her bank accounts and money up front in order to secure her place among the other secret winners. That’s just the beginning of poor Marj’s problems. Her devastating fall from grace is a cruel wonder to read.
While Marjorie is raked over the coals, her ex husband, whom she hasn’t seen since he left decades before, has gone through the trauma of having his City of Industry apartment mistaken for that of a drug dealer and invaded by police. In the process, his dog is shot. After the ordeal there are lots of apologies by all involved, his dog gets the best care, makes it through, and Ray ends up with a tasty settlement from the city.
So, lots of opportunity for a rather depressing story. But Wagner takes us into the cranium of these characters so absolutely that we don’t just witness their innocence (for the mother and father) and humor and pathos (for the kids) but we feel it absolutely. Wagner is masterful at spinning pages of internal strife and dialogue into gold blocks of black humor and endless pop culture references. Actually, he goes beyond references to show how actual behavior and thought patterns are predicated on the cultural environment.
Bruce Wagner has been writing about Hollywood and Los Angelinos denizens since the early nineties (and earlier?) when he published his first novel, Force Majeure, about an aspiring screenwriter who drives a limo for a living, a character who will do anything to get his stuff on screen and be a player in Hollywood. Wagner writes about the inner workings of his L.A. characters like no writer since possibly Nathaniel West—splayed and flayed in real-time, they swagger, discourse, screw, ingest drugs, screw over, and ultimately expect their due. And it should be said, the karma they put out comes back to them in grand ways. Generally, lots of humiliating situations ensue. I couldn’t get through Force Majeure. It was unrelentingly depressing and misanthropic. It also lacked what his later novels (including his cellular trilogy, I’ll Let You Go, I’m Still Holding, and I’m Losing You) abundantly enjoyed: a wicked, fun, spot-on sense of humor. The blacker the better.
Chester and Joan fight off their respective demons by fucking, doping, and spewing some of the foulest, racist, darkest humor I’ve probably ever read in a mainstream book. There are some images I wish I hadn’t come across. Yet everything mixed together—the bathos of Marjorie as a total victim; the tender, dopey father making gestures to reconnect to his original family; Joan discovering a strength and positive ferocity while becoming her mother’s only benefactor and protector; vapid, flailing Chester digging deep to finally overcome his fears and head off to India to search for an inner peace he’s canny enough to know he’ll never get in Los Angeles—all this crazy shit reduces like a surprisingly succulent stew from the disparate parts of a dozen stale Hollywood pitch meetings.
Death comes a calling, and India as country and symbol spins its web, as a real or fantasy destination for many of the characters. It’s this symbol of peace and healing that swirls out of the memorials for everyone lost in recent tragedies, both American and world-wide. It’s like Wagner has created this sour and sweet salve to rub on America’s collective, exhausted wounds.
Wagner’s prose is thick, and I’m always surprised at his savvy turns of phrase. While his characters, mostly Joan and Chester, spew long pages of venom and uncanny (sometimes unrealistic) insight into almost every corner of their psyche, there’s nothing boring about Memorial, and everything about it will stick with you. This novel was published in 2006, and it’s so timely that if you read it in another couple years, the pop references would seem stale, although they magically still hold up in February 2009. And his themes of human loss, family struggle and tragedy, of the haves and wish-I-hads, of endings and beginnings, never really go out of style.