Jess Cagle
September 06, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

You know that I’m Losing You, Bruce Wagner’s savagely comic novel about Hollywood, is going to be good because it starts with this disclaimer: ”No resemblance to the actual conduct of real-life persons, or to actual events, is intended.” It is, of course, the imaginary conduct of some very real stars that has helped make I’m Losing You one of the year’s most notorious books. Among the famous names who make unwitting cameos in its pages:

Alec Baldwin In a phone conversation with a producer, the actor ponders taking the role of an insurance broker who preys on AIDS patients. ”This is Academy Award time,” says the producer. Responds Baldwin: ”You’re giving me a boner.”

Richard Dreyfuss At a Hollywood party featuring a screening of all-male pornography, Dreyfuss pronounces the film ”a great flick….Needs a new title, though: how ’bout Full Metal Jack-off?”

Holly Hunter After a friend’s little girl is murdered by a deranged wannabe producer, Hunter makes her pal an offer: ”Be mah damn purrsonal ‘sistant!”

Jodie Foster After administering a massage to a fictional screenwriter, a young masseuse recalls in her diary: ”She screened her calls during the rub, and one came in from Jodie Foster….[They] were talking about some script, obliquely kissing each other’s asses…”

The stars are silent regarding their imaginary depictions, but others are talking about the book plenty. Though Wagner, who’s perhaps best known for writing the bizarre 1993 miniseries Wild Palms, says he incorporated real stars in the book to keep it from becoming a ”guessing game,” speculation over who inspired some of the novel’s characters is becoming a favorite pastime among insiders. Who are Zev Turtletaub, the producer who gets a kinky thrill out of vomiting on his assistant, and Oberon Mall, the ”Big Star” who sexually molests a child in the name of researching a role?

Libel laws prevent us from speculating, but ”what Bruce captures, he captures brilliantly,” says Paul Bartel, who directed the 1989 romp Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, written by Wagner. ”It isn’t the whole Hollywood by any means; it’s the glamorous, upscale, decadent subdivision.”

The author who’s generating this excitement, however, takes ”umbrage when people refer to [I’m Losing You] as a Hollywood novel. I was raised in Beverly Hills,” says Wagner, whose father, now a stockbroker, was a radio producer during his son’s youth, ”so I will always be writing about this area. A Hollywood novel is something that other writers take a stab at.”

In Wagner’s Hollywood, an addled old TV writer has spent the past several years eavesdropping on car-phone conversations (hence the book’s title) while waiting for a call from Paramount, and several other characters flirt with madness. Wagner, 42, may be exorcising some demons of his own. At 21, he spent time in a San Francisco halfway house for treatment of ”a so-called character disorder,” he says. ”I lost my stamina, my focus. I was homeless. I don’t know why I became disassociated with the world, but I had to work my way back.”

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