SoCal chronicler extraordinaire (Still Holding, 2003, etc.) goes deep with a portrait of a terminally self-destructive family.
After lightening up a bit in his previous novel (The Chrysanthemum Palace, 2005), Wagner returns to a more savage tone with this baleful look at a subculture in abysmal decline. Members of the long-broken-up Herlihy family are living separate lives, each being screwed over in horrendous ways. Ray, who deserted his two children years ago, is an aging fella who doesn’t enjoy much anymore except for Twilight Zone reruns and the company of his moody, young, Indian girlfriend. When the police mistakenly break down Ray’s door and shoot his dog before realizing Ray’s not the perp they want, a classic Los Angeles civil suit goes quickly into motion. Marj, Ray’s dotty ex, just lost her new husband and is sucked into an elaborate con by a team of cold-blooded grifters, who take the scam to lengths almost too painful to read. Ray and Marj’s daughter Joan, a striving architect, is hired by a billionaire to design a memorial honoring two of his relatives (and nobody else) who died in the Southeast Asian tsunami. When not delivering furious interior monologues (“she was merely a skinsack of Diet Coke sugarwater and ruined eggs”), Joan sleeps with all the wrong men and hates herself for it. Last and least is Chester, a film-location scout whose life is lost in a fog of pot smoke and bad schemes until he’s accidentally wounded during a staged gag for a Punk’d-style TV show (inspiring another promising civil suit). Like its subjects/targets, the story occasionally gets lost in self-reflection. Wagner’s prose is, nevertheless, a force of nature, and laser-sharp in its selection of Hollywood sitting ducks.
Brilliant, entropic fiction that sometimes spins off into its own narcissistic void.