“Dead Stars is the London Fields of Los Angeles, the Ulysses of TMZ culture—an immensely literate, fearsomely interior novel about people who are neither.” —Tom Bissell, GQ
At age thirteen, Telma is famous as the world’s youngest breast cancer survivor until threatened with obscurity by a four-year-old who’s just undergone a mastectomy…. Reeyonna believes that auditioning for pregnant teenage porn will help fulfill her dream of befriending Kanye West…. Jackie, a photographer once celebrated for arty nudes of her young daughter, is working at a Sears Family Portrait boutique…. And Oscar-winning Michael Douglas searches for meaning while his wife, Catherine, guest-stars on Glee.
Moving forward with the inexorable force of a tsunami, Dead Stars is Bruce Wagner’s most lavish and remarkable translation yet of the national zeitgeist: post-privacy porn culture, a Kardashianworld of rapid-cycling, disposable narrative where reality-show triumph is the new American narcotic.
Disclaimer: Please be advised that this excerpt contains adult content.
Dancing With The Stars
He was in LA, in preproduction on a film. Catherine was shooting a Fosse-themed Glee. Ryan told him that a guest stint by Catherine had been in play long before Michael sent his fan letter.
. . . .
He met the little cancer gal & her mom for tea at the Peninsula.
Then he did something that surprised him.
Michael told the driver to take him to the little cemetery in Westwood where his half-brother was buried. (He didn’t question his instincts anymore.) Anyway, now was as good a time as any to pay his respects to the dead; he wasn’t able to make the Reaper’s recent gala, and had respectfully RSVP’d his regrets. He’d be attending soon enough.
The actor’s asst called the park to make sure he wouldn’t be disrupting a funeral by his presence. The coast was clear. A caretaker met him at the car & walked him to Eric’s flat stone. The mood of that shitty day—Eric’s funeral—washed over him. He knelt a moment, running a finger over the grass on the grave.
The actor meandered through the modestly-scaled tombs. It felt like a minefield. He stepped over, around & in-between the engraved invitations in a superstitious foxtrot (or minuet, holding Death’s hand like a child without knowing it), which was more or less what he’d done with cancer—with sure foot and unwavering eye, he picked his way through the cellsplitting grunge & muck that tried to abduct and to claim him, to snatch him back whence he came like an incensed parent denied custody. The fuckers on the Internet who laid virtual money that his time was nigh had already lost their shirts. He felt like Keith Richards. He’d outlive all the jackals, & have kicks along the way.
Everyone knew that Marilyn was buried here but as he walked and surveyed, the profusion of showbiz dead surprised him. His dad’s time was well-represented: Malden & Matthau, Leigh, Lancaster, Lemmon. The manicured morgue was as eclectic as a guest list off the old Tonight Show—Capote, Coburn, Cassavetes—Gene Kelly, Don Knotts, Merv. Dominick Dunne’s murdered daughter was here and he wondered why Nick buried himself in Connecticut instead of with his child. Michael couldn’t bear the thought of being separated from his children, even in death. He shook his head at the Zappa & Joplin markers . . . unfuckingreal.
He soft-shoed between Natalie Wood and Billy Wilder, suddenly standing over Farrah. That was a tough death. It was one thing to go on Letterman and tell the world the cat got your tongue, & entirely another to announce the cat crawled up your ass and died and was taking you with it. In those first frightening months, MD thought of her a lot. He watched her documentary—all in all, a damn brave girl. Hella courage. And to have them film you like that, hella courage all around. He remembered something a friend said when the family was vacationing in Fiji. They were floating in a coral reef when a small, black&white-banded snake swam between his legs and disappeared. His buddy told him it was poisonous but not to worry, it had no interest in human beings. Michael asked where the hospital was, if you happened to get bit. “You could drive to the clinic in town,” he answered, “but I wouldn’t recommend it. It wouldn’t be the best use of the hour you had left.”
MD wondered how he’d behave in the face of losing numbers: that was the real Hitch-22. (Jesus, losing Christopher was a loss. What giantsized balls the man had.) He knew the producer in him—the warrior—would never want to concede, but the actor just might . . . He agonized over the question: When do you stop NetJetting to clinics in Switzerland, South Africa, Brazil for experimental treatment? When the only result is twitter rape, videos of your emaciated bodyhusk struggling in and out of vans, your haunted, anguished huffin and puffin visage HuffPosted to the world. Ryan O’Neal had stayed by her side, steadfast & true. MD laughed a little, thinking: he won’t be by my side, least not if I can help it. There were so many things you’d lose control of once you crossed a certain threshold . . . Ryan had leukemia himself, for the last ten years, same type Ali had in Love Story. And now he’s got prostate. It’s Cancer’s world, we just live in it. At least Ryan was still alive. Wasn’t he? He headed toward the car, pausing at another stone:
FEBRUARY 28, 1960—AUGUST 14, 1980
Strange. He wondered if the mom had written it. Maybe. In a raging delirium of grief, no doubt.
Star 80 was probably Fosse’s best film. His most director-like film, anyway.
She was only twenty. Star 20 . . . . . . . . . .
Some were made like his dad, royal tortoises mobb deep in guardian angels, while others breathed ICU nursery O2-tank air for a few mayfly minutes before expiration.
One needn’t be a philosopher to grasp the insignificance of temporal goings-on; one needn’t even be pretentious (tho sometimes that helped). In the design of things, there was utterly no significance in whether you lived an hour, a year or a hundred years—the span of human life was cloud graffiti. Michael couldn’t remember the context, but one of his doctors in Montreal used a wonderful word, blessure, which meant injury to tissue, a break in the skin. (The actor rearranged it in his head as “surely blessed.”) Last night as he fell asleep, he meditated. If every soul who’d ever lived and died on Earth—Yahoo! put it just over 100 billion—were to suddenly manifest & vaporize, the Unknown would have no more awareness of the thunderous lamentations accompanying their collective outgoing breath than an insect would have knowledge of a microblog devoted to its industrious ways. The unfathomable cessation would incur no celestial blessure, the Ineffable not suffer the slightest bruising whatsoever. Something he read in his college days at UC Santa Barbara stayed with him all these years, something one did have to be a philosopher to have said, or philosopher-poet, anyway. “Life is the rarest form of death.” Wasn’t that wild? The old joke of life being a near-death experience. Was that George Carlin? Or Mr. Nietzsche?
MD came out the other side of his catastrophe with the firm belief that cancer was his teacher. Cancer had urged him to accept (or die trying) earthly life for the dream it was—fleeting, as they say, tho such a perception seemed impossible to achieve (if one could call it an achievement) for anyone but saints, idiots & visionaries. Yet since the diagnosis, he strove to live in that blissful, acquiescent state, that unreachable cliché of presence in the moment, yes, in this moment, not moments past or moments to come. This moment was all he had. In this moment, he was alive & cancer-free. In this moment, from a cemetery, he conjured his wife, beckoning. In this moment, he could see his children crying, laughing, sleeping. In this moment, he had more money than he could spend in a hundred lifetimes.
By the time a too-close bird ended his train of thought, the actor’s tour was almost done. It wouldn’t have been complete without Marilyn.
The plaque on the drawer of the cinerarium bore only her name, and the year of birth & death. Thirty-six years-old at the age of blessure . . . A long time ago, a businessman bought the space right above her. He told his wife to make sure they buried him facedown, in the missionary position—just for the kamikaze cosmo-comic eterno-skeleto-fuck jokey thrill of it—an inspired wish that his widow evidently wryly carried out. Then bogeyman Madoff swindled her and she had to auction off the spectral fuckpad penthouse, she got five million for it (if memory served) & buried him elsewhere— exhumation in flagrante postmortem delicto. It was common pop-cult knowledge that’s where Hef was going, years ago he bought the crib beneath Monroe, so he could properly stick his candle in the wind. Karma was a funny thing: Norma Jean was molested as a child, & she’d be molested in the afterlife. It was ironic too that Dorothy Stratten always wanted to hang at the Playboy Mansion; now, Marilyn and Hef would be partying, with Dorothy just outside the gate, for all eternity.
The Wheel of Karma kept on turning.
MD understood those people who thought burial was for squares, for whom cremation was the magic word—to be sprinkled here & there, over the ground or into the wind & water of a place one loved. He understood the feelings of those who were stingy/proprietary about recycling theirs or loved ones’ organs, even those who thought there might be bad voodoo in signing the donor’s form on the back of a driver’s license. He understood how a person could feel in their untransplanted heart that mutilation—that posthumously violent, non- consensual blessure—regardless of the alleviation of the suffering of the living, just wasn’t the way to go.
He didn’t care about any of that now. They could scoop his eyes & pluck his corneas, whittle his kidneys, grand theft his thorax, fry up his liver, & harvest his skin on a special edition of Piers Morgan. They could tear off cock&balls at the root and laminate them for teaching hospitals. They could feed him to the dogs & piss on him, because by then his soul would be in another dream.
He was over it.
Praise for DEAD STARS by Bruce Wagner
“Written in hyper-hilarious, brilliant prose, [DEAD STARS] renders an obsessive pop-culture nightmare of surprising realism and light, illuminating the meanest corners of its characters’—and our culture’s—desperation.”
—Publisher’s Weekly, STARRED review
“Dead Stars is a tragicomic Hollywood epic: obscene, scandalous, heartbreaking. Best American novel I’ve read in a year…”
“[T]here are few writers capable of escorting us more convincingly into a character’s tender, gnarled mind. Dead Stars, easily Wagner’s best and most ambitious novel yet, is a huge, riveting book...every page contains something statically electric enough to scorch the hair from your arms. Dead Stars is the London Fields of Los Angeles, the Ulysses of TMZ culture—an immensely literate, fearsomely interior novel about people who are neither.”
—Tom Bissell, GQ
“[DEAD STARS is] not just the best novel about Americans and fame of the past dozen years but the best since Nathanael West's "The Day of the Locust” … We all know the problems that Mr. Wagner is criticizing—we know about the idolization of people who became famous by way of sex tapes; we know about the mind-boggling traffic rates of online pornography; we know about plummeting educational standards and shortening attention spans. Sociologists give us statistics, and pundits write jeremiads. It takes an artist to make us feel the full horror and humanity of the situation.”
—Wall Street Journal
“Dead Stars is a manic, hypersexualized take-down of Hollywood wannabes and strivers, a relentless, wickedly funny, pornographic flash on the eddies of fame in the present moment….the book is a total leap, a stylistic satiric attack, a XXX accomplishment. Wagner is often called a Hollywood writer; I'm not sure that's fair. Fame, craven desire, sexuality, art, pornography, literature, envy, disappointment, greed—are these things limited to Hollywood?”
—Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times
“Wagner’s prose reads like the lovechild of Hunter S. Thompson and David Foster wallace…The most enjoyable riffs in Dead Stars display Wagner’s up-to-the-nanosecond insider’s knowledge of the L.A. scene....He also writes some clean, mean, glittery dialogue.”
—Lisa Zeidner, The Washington Post
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