Hollywood denizens grapple with the good, the bad and the in-between in Bruce Wagner’s ‘Still Holding’

September 5, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 5, 2014

The intertwining lives of three people form the center of Bruce Wagner’s 2003 book, Still Holding. The work, subtitled A Novel of Hollywood, tracks Kit Lightfoot, a superstar film actor searching for personal and professional fulfillment; Becca, a young actress and Drew Barrymore lookalike taking a shot at stardom; and Lisanne, 37-year-old single executive assistant grappling with pregnancy and motherhood.

What’s intriguing about the book is not so much the characters as the difficulties they face. Becca, the book’s least interesting protagonist, becomes involved with Rusty, a headstrong Russell Crowe lookalike. Through him, she meets Grady and Cassandra Dunsmore, a hard-partying, wildly ambitious couple who hope to transform a pair of rich malfeasance and wrongful-death settlements into a film and television empire. The attentions of these three mercurial acquaintance are by turns enticing and frightening to Becca, who vacillates between concealing and playing up her rural-Virginia roots.

Becca also gets an opportunity to become personal assistant to Viv Wembley, Kit’s TV-actress girlfriend, which gives the would-be starlet an opportunity to spy on Lightfoot’s glamorous existence without ever actually getting to meet him.

Kit’s life is turned upside down when a spurned fan clubs him with a bottle of alcohol, causing significant head trauma. The star’s constellation of intimates and attendants shifts and contracts as he begins a long recovery process, one that puts the Southern California native back in touch with his estranged father and his similarly estranged high-school girlfriend.

Lisanne, who seems to have been drifting long before the death of her father near the beginning of Still Holding, settles uneasily into motherhood. She even attracts a beau, Philip, an eccentric heir who gives Lisanne and the baby a home and indulges in kinky sex with her. But it becomes increasingly clear that Lisanne is a disaster waiting to happen.

Kit and Lisanne are both practitioners of Buddhism. The spiritual practice seems to help ground the ailing Kit even as its nuances and complexity exacerbate Lisanne’s psychological breakdown. Their lives intersect when she and other Buddhist disciples volunteer to assist with grunt work during Kit’s recuperation. (If Wagner is correct about the popularity of Buddhism in Southern California, the extent to which this philosophy from a very different culture has penetrated Hollywood is certainly remarkable.)

In this early scene, Becca, Rusty, Grady and the pregnant Cassandra meet for intoxicated revelry in a hotel:

Room service brought pizza, caviar, ice cream, and booze, and everyone broke apart then came back together again, disappearing into the bedroom for lines of coke. When Rusty told her the cognac cost eight hundred dollars, Becca said, “Sorry, but I cannot compute.” Cassandra said she was drinking only tequila now. She said it was the purest and actually benefited the baby homeopathically.

At one in the morning, she began to cry over her drowned daughter. “I’m sorry, sweetheart!” she shouted, through pugnacious tears. Whenever Grady went to her side she shoved him away like a diva. “Baby-girl Questra, I am so sorry I didn’t protect you! Forgive me! Forgive your mama!”

Repelled at the sight of the stoned, egregiously mawkish woman, Becca became sickened by her own response — who was she to judge? She, who didn’t know the first thing about the blood, sweat, and tears of birthing a child, the agony and the ecstasy, the responsibility, and maybe never would… What gave her the right to sit on high? How could she dare resent someone who’d been through what Cassandra had? Becca shuddered with the realization: It was their money she resented them for. Disgusting! As if they didn’t deserve every dollar! The police had cold-bloodedly shot Grady down, then planted the dope — and if that wasn’t enough, they’d watched their little baby die through the negligence of a city maintenance crew. Becca Mondrain, you ought to be ashamed.

Wagner’s cleverness here is that both of the naïve young actress’s reactions to the spectacle before her are correct. While the Dunsmores are deserving of sympathy for the hardships they’ve suffered, they’re equally deserving of contempt for their reckless behavior. Cassandra mourns the death of one child at the same moment as she endangers the health of another, while Grady gambles, spends and philanders without restraint.

Other characters have similarly split natures. Lisanne is by turns frustratingly disengaged and sympathetic. Kit’s father, who assumes a prominent role in Still Holding, takes a protective interest in his severely injured son, but his approach to managing the impaired actor flirts with exploitation. Kit himself is relatively uninteresting as the superstar we meet at the start of the book; it’s his battle with adversity that imbues the character with depth.

Alas, I didn’t find the novel all that compelling. The spiritual components (“[A]t the time of death, the white essence of the father descended from the head like a moon sinking in the sky”) went over my head, and for the most part, I didn’t find the characters to be pleasant company. My curiosity about how the characters would respond to their trials and tribulations only went so far, especially because I was never that invested in them anyway.

Those interested in Buddhism or the entertainment industry (especially as it was a decade ago) might draw more from Still Holding than me. As for myself, I’d be willing to read another Wagner novel, but it’s not at the top of my to-do list.

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