“Dead Stars” by Bruce Wagner / Wednesday, September 12, 2012 / Reviewed by Clay Stafford

Today’s featured book is Dead Stars by Bruce Wagner.

Dead Stars by Bruce Wagner

Why Clay Stafford chose this book:

This novel is all over the place, but it all comes down to this: Fame. More of it. Lack of it. Slipping of it. More superficial inner-character diatribes I have never read, yet sadly, the writing is truth. The characters started out as funny absurd to me because they were so real and ridiculous – laugh out loud funny – but by the end of the book, I was ready to strangle them all. The world of tweets and that people actually care about tweets has near ruined several generations. Unequivocally, these characters are screwed up. There is no redeeming social value. There are some touching paragraphs especially towards the end, but the pot roast is still the pot roast. This novel is a horror story, but as real as a 20/20 interview. Both the interior and relational conversations are as superficial and vacuous as the din of the mall food court, but brilliantly written. As I went deeper into this book I wondered what I had done wrong in my life: I felt I had lived poorly, died, and found myself in purgatory inside the mind of a “Teen Beat” reader. It made my head implode and as I read, I felt myself consciously blinking trying to process. When Kancer is cool because you spell it with a K (instead of a C) and can tweet it for ratings, you know there is something amiss in the shallow world of starlets and their followers. It was like reading a year’s supply of “Star,” “Us,” and “People” magazine all in one sitting. When I reached the last page, I wanted to get up and take a shower.

What’s in here? Let’s see… Superficial, jealous, lying parental relationships. Hollywood namedropping. Teens who don’t know how to write complete sentences become parents and are so excited that the news calls for a celebration of 4 or 5 Percs and “let’s f—” and see if we can poke the baby in the eyeball. A wannabe screenwriter living with his mother waiting for her to die. A 12-year-old Hollywood kid with more money that Chase trying to track his deserting mother down online. A famous actor dreaming of a comeback. The wife of a famous actor who is a famous prima donna because of the famous actor. The daughter of a well-respected famous actor who sees her career in porn as a future to the legitimate world. A pregnant teen famous for scandalous nude photos when she was a baby who leaves her has-been-famous-and-wants-to-be-famous-again-Sears-portraiture mother and runs off with her loser porn-addicted boyfriend where they both live with an “American Idol” contestant disqualified for making up a fake sob-story-past. These are joined by the pregnant teen’s brother who is famous for taking pictures of famous women getting out of cars without panties and selling them to websites. An obsession with “Glee.” Internet access to the absurd. Porn websites. The public’s obsession with celebrity skin and other inanities of fame. It sounds absurd, but it is a pop culture, tabloid, no-attention-span-immediate-gratification, angry harangue crash course. It’s the GIGO demographic: garbage in garbage out. Bruce Wagner has put a lot of work into this. And fun. There’s no way he could write some of the lines and not be sitting there laughing out loud. But I can feel the sweat.

It is satire at its finest, but the kind of satire that simply holds up the mirror to this population and let’s them hang themselves. There is nothing moralistic, preachy, high handed, or manipulative about how Wagner does this. The guy is just writing it as he sees it. Wagner hits the characters dead center. The stream-of-consciousness inside these characters’ minds is straight out of any supermarket tabloid. It is rapid-fire. The voices are right-on and distinct, which is a major accomplishment considering they are from the same morphic sub-culture. Wagner’s strength is in writing the stream-of-consciousness, MTV-five-second attention span associated so much with this crowd, and turning that prose into independent voices and full dysfunctional families. This is a long book, possibly too long. However, as I read it, the character interactions move along quickly. It is when we are inside a particular character’s head that things tend to circle around on itself. Therein is the conflict between economy and realism. The road taken produces a more pointed effect. Circle, circle, but never arrive. It reminds me when Homer Simpson had a thought. Wait. Wait. “Peanuts.”

I can’t see this novel playing well in middle-America, but it is important because of its characterizations and I will speak from experience, once you get this story and these characters in your mind, there is absolutely no way to get them out. No amount of Lysol will do it. It is reflective of our country’s obsession with fame to the point of absurdity. It will make you laugh. It will make you angry. It will make you want to pistol whip somebody.

Language and subject matter probably won’t appeal to many of the readers on this list. For those whose sensitivities are easily blasted, this is porn taking a look at porn. “Fifty Shades of Grey” might want to pass itself off as a pig in a suit, but this is what it is. There is no preamble. Right from the get-go we are f—ing.

What is wrong with this book is that everything is right. There are too many people in the world like this. He’s not making fun of Hollywood. He’s not making fun of the tabloid newsstand. No, he’s making fun of what America has become. Facebook, text, and tweet that, twit. It’s partly the vanity and vacuousness of Beverly Hills, but even more so, it is a mirror image of the culture that worships them.

How close to reality is it? My son was selling magazines this week for his school. There was a 1 page offering for science and history. They’ve discontinued the literature section except for certain literary magazines which are nothing more than hi-brow navel-gazing. There were several pages for sports (essentially J-Lo in the body of PacMan Jones). And the rest of the 40-50 page catalog was basically glamour and star-chasing with cleavage and “secret tips” galore. This is for an elementary magazine sale fundraiser. But we all know that if my son went door-to-door with a one-sheet of intellectual fare, he would sell nothing. The point of Wagner’s novel is well-made and, unfortunately for those who seek a more erudite world, you’re not helping. No matter what we like to think of as traditional values, the question comes down to this: Will doing a sex tape or posing nude make us famous when we have no other talent or redeeming value to offer? And if we are not doing the tape or posing, will we be enablers by looking or talking about it to our friends? Do we talk about the personal lives of stars as though we know them? Therein is the rub of this book because in this culture, there really is only one answer.

From Amazon:

Dead Stars is Bruce Wagner’s (I’m Losing You) 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.

At age thirteen, Telma is famous as the world’s youngest breast cancer survivor until threatened with obscurity by a four-year-old Canadian who’s just undergone a mastectomy … Reeyonna believes that auditioning for pregnant-teen porn online will help fulfill her dream of befriending Jennifer Lawrence and Kanye West … Biggie, the neurologically impaired adolescent son of a billionaire, spends his days Google Map-searching his mother-who abandoned home and family for a new love … Jacquie, a photographer once celebrated for taking arty nudes of her young daughter, is broke and working at Sears Family Portrait Boutique … Tom-Tom, a singer/drug dealer thrown off the third season of “American Idol” for concocting a hard-luck story, is hell-bent on creating her own TV series in the Hollywood Hills, peopled by other reality-show losers … Jerzy, her sometime lover, is a speed-freak paparazzo who “specializes” in capturing images of dying movie and television stars … And Oscar-winning Michael Douglas searches for meaning in his time of remission. While his wife, Catherine, guest-stars on “Glee”, the actor plans a bold, artistic, go-for-broke move: to star in and direct a remake of Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz”…

There is nothing quite like a Bruce Wagner novel. His prose is captivating and exuberant, and surprises with profound truths on spirituality, human nature, and redemption. Dead Stars moves forward with the inexorable force of a tsunami, sweeping everyone in its fateful path. With its mix of imaginary and real-life characters, it is certain to be the most challenging, knowing, and controversial book of the year.”

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Remember that these books are listed at a discount through Amazon. You also don’t have to purchase the version that is featured here. Many of these books are available in multiple formats: e–book, hardcover, softcover, and audio. Enjoy!

– Clay Stafford, Founder of Killer Nashville