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Hollywood Cannibals : CHIMNEY ROCK, By Charlie Smith (Henry Holt: $22.50, 388 pp.)

July 04, 1993|Mollie Gregory | Gregory is the author of "Equal to Princes" and "Triplets," novels about Hollywood appetites

In Charlie Smith's new novel--a narrative tour de force instantly bringing to mind Faulkner and Lowery--he mines the Blakes, "a Hollywood family" of ferocious and exaggerated appetites. It's tempting to deny anyone in Hollywood has the murderous insanity or emotional depth even faintly to compare to the Blakes. But if not here, where? Whoever really knows what lurks beneath the shimmering palm fronds and the gilded sunlight? Smith knows; and it's not mere tinsel, that's for sure.

In previous novels ("Shine Hawk" and "The Lives of the Dead"), Smith has been called "prodigiously talented," and so he is. "Chimney Rock" is an over-rich feast that will gag some readers but make epicures of many.

The central character is Will Blake, a successful actor who grew up in dysfunctional movie land. His father, Clement, a psychotic film producer, laughable, grotesque and dangerous, destroys anyone to get what he wants. Between father and son stretches the mainframe of the novel, a lifelong, bone-deep antipathy. Will's brother's suicide haunts the book. Jennie White, Will's mother, "a ruined actress" combats the pains of a lifetime etched "in her 65-year-old face . . . ineradicable." Finally, there's Will's wife, Kate, as extreme and driven as Clement, with whom she is having a consuming and catastrophic affair.

The novel has four parts, each with its own logic of past and present. In part one, Will has been nominated for an Oscar and arrives in Los Angeles, "the terrible city," to attend the ceremony. His wife, the unrepentant Kate, an actress, has been sending Will a stream of tormenting videos from Mexico. Kate and her videos wind through his past and his anguished present like a furious, incandescent comet.

He visits Jennie and Clement, parents drawn so sensually that against your will you feel, taste, smell them. Clement wants to star his son in a picture. Will agrees. "My father . . . kisses me on the mouth. I feel a warm prickling, as if I am kissing the prince who still smells of the frog he was. My father has found his way to murder me."

Will's orgy of despair and violence, in constant motion through Los Angeles and Mexico, begins--a murder mystery, a tale of rapacious family vengeance, and of homicidal raptures. Other characters coagulate around him, but this novel is about Will's battle with his cannibalistic parents, his agonizing marriage, then about his violent reprieve.

In anger and despair, Will is "living above a craziness, making do as best (he) can with this beast," but he has clearly reached a precipice and is peering into the abyss.

Driving around L.A., he sees a woman "slapped crazy by Hollywood" fire three shots into an apartment building, then roar away in her Corvette. He follows her through the city; she shoots Will, leaves him for dead, but the bullet only grazes his scalp. When Will comes to we're on the harrowing path of his recent past, through Italy and Mexico, through a subtropical, subconscious adventure twisted with betrayals.

The plot is not the key to this book. As in Faulkner, Smith's plot takes on a time-bent sense of beginnings and endings, like a river that seems to rise from a trickle to reach the sea, but really begins somewhere beneath the trickle and does not end in the sea but joins an even larger body.

"Chimney Rock" is about appalling thirst and intense heat and extravagant characters--actors, producers, agents--Hollywood's pinwheels. It's about killers of the spirit and about spirits too tough to be killed. As Will says, early on: "I had work to do. I had a killer to defend myself from, and I had killers to get up and go see." A childhood friend, Billy Dangelo, studio production chief, is one of those, "a Hollywood killer, a tough guy his father had claimed to be and never was. . . ."

Smith constructs the present on the archeology of the past in rich sequences--more than flashbacks. But at times you wish he'd just get on with the story. Never mind--this book steams and sweats, banked as it is in gaudy, oppressive flowers, tumescent greenery, desert heats and hatchet-faced studio execs, faithful only to "trying to nail the little nail of their lives just a bit higher. . . . They think there are things they won't do."

Not a central image, but a telling one, is Chimney Rock in Nebraska, where Kate may come from, which rises out of the prairie, a landmark for pioneers heading West. "It was a sign," Kate says, " . . . that they were traveling correctly . . . a kind of introduction to the true West . . . a spire." Which can also mean aspire, and it does to Kate as, "wild for success, eaten by it," she lurches toward--what? Finales. Excesses.

Smith's writing is aggressive, complex, poetic, "thick as a dream," sacrificing what we like to call "clarity," but which may not be clarity at all--only simplicity.

On one level, "Chimney Rock" is the story of parents lawlessly pillaging their children's lives; on another it's a pungent, impassioned, tactile adventure into the flesh, smell and taste of inner Hollywood. Plunge right in.

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