The author of I’m Losing You (1996) slices open the self-satisfied bosom of Los Angeles yet again in his third novel, a sprawling family saga that trades the usual mush-mouthed sentimentalities for cascading shards of knife-edged vignettes.
Wagner sets up his cast with masterly ease. The closest thing we have to a protagonist is 12-year-old Toulouse (Tull) Trotter, who walks his mighty Dane, Pullman, around his sidewalk-less Bel-Air neighborhood. His mother Trinnie (short for Katrina) has been sober all of six months and still seems to be crashing from the weight of having husband Marcus up and disappear one night just after they were married. The vine-choked ruins of the house and garden built for the couple by her richer-than-Croesus father, Louis Trotter, still stand nearby the sprawling estate where she and Tull live with Grandpa Lou. Tull forms a tight, spoiled knot of jet-setting junior-high privilege with his cousins: Lucy, a tense trend-monger who’s deeply in love with Tull and sticks her nose into everyone’s affairs under the guise of researching a novel she’ll never write; and Edward, a young genius, born physically deformed by the effects of Apert’s Syndrome, who designs and sews the Taymor-esque masks and hoods he wears. Their world is momentarily punctured by meeting another young teenager, Amaryllis, who is tossed into the hellish machinery of juvenile placement after her drug-addicted mother dies. The cousins do what they can to help Amaryllis while Tull and Lucy search for Marcus, whom Trinnie had claimed until recently was dead. There are ample moments here for easy satiric thrusts, but, happily, Wagner keeps his focus on his people. Meanwhile, his prose is looping and elegant, yet thoroughly grounded in the day-to-day vernacular of southern California’s self-obsessed elite. If Bret Easton Ellis had immersed himself for several years in 18th-century tales of the decadent French aristocracy, picking up a few hints from Michael Tolkin along the way, this is what you might get.
A masterful, modern-day fantasy of millionaires and madmen, fathers and sons, reality and dreams.