Ten Days in the Hills by Jane Smiley

Margaria Fichtner
The Miami Herald

What should you do when war starts? Visit a friend! Talk! Have sex!

Ten Days in the Hills

Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 1400040612
Author: Jane Smiley
Price: $26.00
Length: 464
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-02

You know how it is. Famous author drops tantalizing hints about "my Hollywood sex novel," and everyone thinks Wow! but eventually resumes obsessing over global warming and stock portfolios, and long, empty years pass.

Well, guess what. With this big, fat ooh-la-la, Jane Smiley delivers at last. Ten Days in the Hills opens with the image of a naked, middle-age woman gazing at the sleeping, naked man beside her, at the sunlight glinting off his silvery chest hair, off his inert (vulgar synonym for barnyard fowl). When the man awakens (fourth paragraph), he and the woman begin to talk, then (paragraph 10) to kiss. For many pages thereafter, they chat and cuddle until it seems as if they just might go ahead and ... whatever ... only to be stymied by the barnyard fowl's uncooperative nonchalance, and. ...

Oh, shut up.

Now sailing toward the outer edges of mid-career, Smiley has produced 11 novels over the past three decades and so adores the sensation of new sentences flexing, preening inside her that she is likely to write at least that many more. But if the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres is Smiley's most ambitiously literary work, Horse Heaven her most sweetly transcendent, Moo her most acid and satiric, Good Faith her most sly, then this hilariously deadpan sizzler with its crisscrossing attractions, its preoccupations with war, sex, art, death and the movies, is her noisiest. Yak yak yak yak yak yak yak. Lord, how these people talk.

Already our most high-spirited observer of small sociological universes -- the family farm, the small town, the university campus, the racetrack, the medieval settlement -- Smiley here narrows her focus even more, to the cocoon of a house party.

Modeling the frame structure and monologue loop of The Decameron, Boccaccio's allegorical masterpiece in which 10 friends retreat to the Italian countryside to escape the Black Death and regale each other with stories, Ten Days opens in a rambling Los Angeles mansion with views of the Getty. It is early spring, the morning after the Academy Awards and a few days into the Iraq war.

The naked man is Nathan "Max" Maxwell, famous B-list screenwriter/producer with an Oscar and a blockbuster disaster flick gilding his otherwise lackluster resume. The woman is his lover, Elena. An author of popular self-help books -- Here's How: To Do EVERYTHING Correctly! -- Elena is savvy, practical, aggressively opinionated, morosely anti-war. Even as Max's house becomes a sort of let's-wait-it-out shelter for family members and friends, she knows the Bush administration's promise is a lie, knows the Iraq initiative will not be over soon.

"I want the whole idea of war to simply be disgorged from the body politic," she tells Max after pecking him on the lips and easing her body out from under his, "... and I want those who thought it up to feel sick with overwhelming nausea and horror. ... And I want them to make a solemn vow to change their ways and do better in the future. I don't think it's too much to ask."

It is hard to know how much more anyone could ask of Smiley here. As Max's house becomes squiggly with guests -- his daughter, Isabel; his agent, Stoney; his old school chum, Charlie, plus Max's ex-wife, the black film star/singer Zoe Cunningham; Zoe's psychic healer/lover Paul; Zoe's commanding and wise mother Delphine; Delphine's gallery-owner friend Cassie, and Elena's cute, bizarre son Simon -- the novel so rattles with undercurrents of parent/child squabbles and political and erotic tensions it soon acquires the dynamic, claustrophobic lushness of an animated curio cabinet.

In her luxurious "13 Ways of Looking at the Novel," Smiley explains how long fiction accumulates its heft: "It begins as a mere adding on, though adding on may quickly turn into elaborating or digressing or complicating or subordinating and analyzing."

So one of Max's guests will appear as a dancing penis in a student-produced porn film. Another will be socked in the jaw. One of the men will crumble twice into tears. One of the women will flush someone else's car keys down a toilet. Someone will be spanked.

Otherwise, even after the action moves across town to the glittering, Xanadu-scale estate of a Russian investor trying to lure Max into shooting a remake of Taras Bulba, the days' agenda boils down to excellent meals, variously configured sex, after-dinner movie screenings and, of course, interior monologues, dialogues, conversations rippling with jokes, arguments, innuendo, putdowns, rant, reminiscence, history lessons, secrets, song, movie plots, fake Hollywood lore and a few set pieces that could -- maybe should -- be performed.

Smiley slyly bestows upon Paul a massaged version of The Decameron's opening story, and the management of Miami Beach's Eden Roc may be surprised to learn what happened to an unfortunate nightclub patron during the years Delphine worked there as a maid.

By the end of the 10 days, Max, Elena and the others revert to the more familiar parameters of their anxious, post-9/11 lives. The war still rages, but they all have been changed, some in surprising, even dramatic ways. Elena most closely channels Smiley's moral temperament with regard to Iraq, but there is not a clunker among any of these characters. The reader segues from leering voyeurism to that milder state, companionship, thrilled with such a panorama of foibles, blunders, egos and insights and hoping to be invited the next time these folks decide to head for the oh, you know.

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