Bruce Wagner’s Roar Deconstructs the Potato Chip Genius of Oral Biographies
In Roar: American Master, an Oral Biography of the fictional Roger Orr, the author celebrates a spoken genre where modernity meets hagiography.
By John Lavitt
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 11/22/2022 – On November 17th at the Beverly Hill Library Auditorium, American novelist Bruce Wagner discussed his new novel with New York Times bestselling author Sam Wasson. After a lively back and forth about Roar, American Master – The Oral Biography of Roger Orr, parts of the novel were read by a quartet of four Amazing actresses: Beverly D’Angelo, Dana Delany, Kelly Lynch, and Kate Berlant. Given his habit of hanging out with the best and the brightest of each decade he spent on this planet, Roger Orr would have been proud of such a lineup.
From Edie: An American Biography by Jean Stein and George Plimpton to Robert Altman: The Oral Biography by Mitchell Zuckoff, the oral biography is traditionally a nonfiction genre that juggles multiple voices about a single subject. In such an innovative form, the reader becomes part of the process of weaving the voices together to form a coherent tapestry. Beyond biographies, the master of the form was Studs Terkel, who wove multiple voices together to illuminate topics. From Working and American Dreams: Lost and Found to The Good War and Hard Times, Terkel illuminated pivotal epochs of American life. Reading an oral biography is like eating intellectual and emotional potato chips: You can’t stop at one.
Born in Nashville in 1940 and adopted by a wealthy San Francisco couple, Roger Orr is a Promethean figure who becomes a legendary stand-up comedian, songwriter, film director, artist, and dermatologist who first patents cadaver skin for burn victims. Indeed, he represents what we all want to be and achieve. However, when reading recollections of his life, ranging from Gwyneth Paltrow and Charlie Chaplin to Dave Chapelle and Andy Warhol, you never really want to be him.
When asked why he chose this challenging form, Bruce Wagner gave an explanation worthy of his incredibly diverse and wide-ranging character. Wagner said, “I was always captivated by oral biographies, but I also know that the eyewitness is the poorest witness. Given this reality, the form of the book gave me the freedom to do whatever I wanted with each ‘eyewitness’ to Roar’s life. What I first saw as a satire evolved into a full-throated novel that demanded to be heard. The array of fictional voices mimic so-called reality until, as in life, reality and dreaming merge.”
There is a deep anger in the character of Roar that cannot be denied because nothing is ever enough. The question is, do all his stupendous achievements help him to transcend the anger? As Bruce Wagner explains, “With rage, there must be transcendence. Rage alone ultimately curdles. Behind the hyperemotional scaffolding of all my books, Roar is presented as a transcendent, even spiritual figure. As a writer, I never wanted to be the king of the hill of our country’s cultural impoverishment. There must be something more.”
Indeed, even if he is a Renaissance Everyman of our times, is he anything beyond his insatiable thirst for fame and recognition? Although the cacophony of voices in the oral history tells of a spiritual seeker, the man’s spirituality is fractured and desperate. Even after undergoing a sex change and temporarily becoming a transwoman, Roar fails to find the comfort he deeply craves in his own skin. Plagued by madness and addictions, he is a tragic figure that skirts past the tragedy because he never waits long enough in one place to experience the beautiful and quiet banality of life. His moving on undermines his success as a human being.
Although Roar, American Master is not a book for everyone, the many people who will come to love it will express this feeling with an undeniable passion. As booknerd writes in one of the first Amazon reviews of the book, “Wagner is an American master. I’ve read all his books. His work is wild, dangerous, ugly, funny, transgressive, and transcendently beautiful.” As a true example of modernity realized, Bruce Wagner is a shadowy reflection of his creation with one profound exception: He seems comfortable being Bruce Wagner, and it never feels like he wants to be anything else.