Bruce Wagner not only knows where the bodies are buried, but one suspects he’s been up in the Hollywood Hills with a shovel and a flashlight, not to mention a notepad. In three novels over the last decade – 1991’s ”Force Majeure,” 1996’s ”I’m Losing You,” and now I’ll Let You Go – he has made himself into the quiet, remorseless scourge of a certain class of moneyed, ambitious, toxically overprivileged Los Angelenos. Unlike most scourges, though, he vivisects his prey not by chastisement but by unblinking, scabrously accurate observation. He looks into their souls and discovers torment if they’re lucky, emptiness if they’re not; he gets under their skin, and tells you that what he’s found there is cadaver tissue that’s been injected subcutaneously to erase wrinkles. Eons from now, when the Santa Monica freeway and the Shrine Auditorium are buried under a southward-creeping polar ice cap, excavators will be able to read Wagner’s prose and understand the large and small evils, the obsessions, addictions, and self-deceptions of this strange little subspecies. (Whether a record of them is even worth preserving is perhaps best left unasked.)
In ”I’ll Let You Go” – the gentle title extends the phone joke of ”I’m Losing You,” replacing its frightened cry with an act of charity – Wagner comes at his subject from two different angles, with results that, if less successful than in his previous novels, are also admirably more ambitious. ”There is no limit to wealth and its imaginative excesses, just as there is no limit to the proscriptions of poverty,” he writes. Thus, on one end of the spectrum, we have the Trotter dynasty. Grandpa is a fearsome winter warrior who lives only to solicit worldwide architectural proposals for his own mausoleum. Grandma is heading toward inelegant if well-appointed dementia, with intermittent stays at a $2,500-a-night hospital suite furnished with concealed cardiac-monitor wiring, a brocade Scalamandré sofa, and a ”floor concierge” (Wagner’s details here, as everywhere, are eerily on target; the man does his homework).
Their son is a Forbes-list billionaire; their daughter is a glamorous and ghostly wreck – a favorite Wagner type – who seems lost in sorrow (she designs garden labyrinths) and always a fingertip’s reach too far from her own child. Her boyfriend, a screenwriter who can’t decide whether to pronounce his name Ralph or Rafe and who regularly eviscerates his WGA colleagues by name, is one of the author’s nastiest, funniest creations; his brief rants will surely be faxed all over Hollywood by people who, as the author would be the first to tell you, don’t have the focusing power to read a 549-page novel but might just have their assistants do it for them.
As for the early-teen grandkids, they go to the kind of private school where Michael Bay and Robert Towne are guest speakers and where a bully can be thwarted by the warning ”Touch me and my father will f— your family.” When this oddly Harry Potter-ish trio (our diffident hero, Tull; his cousin, the bossy self-styled ”girl detective” Lucy; and her brother, the saintly, handicapped Edward) meet a homeless girl named Amaryllis Kornfeld, the author ventures into new territory. Social criticism has never been far from the surface of Wagner’s work, but in ”I’ll Let You Go,” as he follows the journey of an orphaned waif through the clean-but-mean streets of L.A. and a foster-care system conceived by Hieronymus Bosch, his how-the-other-half-lives agenda becomes explicit.
The eventual collision between Amaryllis’ world and the Trotter empire makes for a novel that’s both rich and poor. Wagner has never been particularly easy to read, and this time out he gives full vent to a strangely overstyled narrative voice, swoopingly omniscient and baroque, as if a class-conscious Dickensian realist and a Proustian soliloquist had drunk from the same snifter of absinthe and collaborated. An old-fashioned family secret provides the center of the novel, which sounds promising until you realize that it’s literally at the center. When an author writes that ”the currents of our main story pull inexorably toward the tributaries of denouement” and he’s still over 200 pages from the finish line, you know there’s a pacing problem. (And if you were appalled rather than amused by the pretension of that sentence, this isn’t the novel for you.) Wagner is, so far, less surefooted as a sentimentalist than as a satirist, and with his cast of friendly giants, plucky girls, doomed little boys, and sad mommies, he’s on very moist ground here. But I can forgive ”I’ll Let You Go” almost all of its excesses and deficiencies just for the scene in which a WB-ish teen star on her lunch break gazes through the black-glass window of her limo at begrimed, desperate Amaryllis and snaps ”I hate it when crew bring their f—ing kids to the set!” With ”I’ll Let You Go,” Bruce Wagner has built Hollywood the mausoleum it deserves.