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Review-a-Day
Powells.com
Saturday, August 10th, 2002


 

The 25th Hour

by David Benioff

A review by Steven Fidel

Editors say a positive review is more difficult to write than a negative one. If that’s true, I hope I am up to doing justice to one of the brightest, albeit inadequately recognized, first novels published in the last few years.

The 25th Hour centers on Monty Brogan (gorgeous golden boy busted by the FBI for stashing several pounds of powder in his sofa) as he’s about to enter federal prison for seven years. With no possible parole, Monty knows his soft black locks and bee-stung lips are going to get him as much attention in prison as they did on the outside, though with results disastrously beyond his control.

Manhattan acts as backdrop for Monty’s final free hours, and what occurs between him, his mistress, two boyhood chums, his dog, and his hoodlum associates. The plot is simple, though Benioff’s writing gifts produce riveting reading from beginning to end — a big hunk of gangland headcandy in America’s greed capital.

The 25th Hour suffers little in terms of plot, character development, or artistic tension — one of the things Benioff does best, especially considering the difficulty even a seasoned writer may encounter employing an omniscient perspective. That Benioff does not rest on a first-person narrative; that he maintains skillful command of a style only a handful of contemporary writers use effectively; and that he employs an unpopular literary voice to tell a thrilling tale — these points alone should have earned Benioff’s work wider acclaim.

So, if this book is so admirable, why, I ask, are more people not reading it? A partial answer, I believe, is that it’s one of a new convention sometimes dubbed "fusion lit," a melding of styles not easily pegged by our current categories. For publishing marketers and booksellers alike, fusion lit is still difficult to place in the hands of readers, if nothing else, because it’s hard to know what to compare it to — the principal means of putting readers on to new work.

With a fusion orientation, The 25th Hour may mostly suffer from what it is not. As already noted, it’s not easy to pigeonhole. It is not terribly cheery (though there are redemptive elements). It is something neither Oprah, Disney, nor Spielberg is likely to pick up. And what there is of a conclusion, is untidy, at best.

The 25th Hour’s most attractive "not," however, is that it’s not predictable. Its people, setting, and voice are unique, despite the somewhat overworked Manhattan scenery. Though we’ve seen these characters in hits from the last decade, they’re more human here than those imagined by such '90s literary luminaries as Ellis, Wolfe, McInerney, or Wells — exuding a vitality nearly uncontainable in the book’s slim 200 pages. Benioff has created a story with an accessible vigor more along the lines of Fight Club or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle which also merged thriller, mystery, literature, and pop into a single pleasing package.

It’s not a book for everyone. But with Russian gangsters, an Irish father with a heart of gold, a simpatico Jewish nebbish, a rough-and-tumble Rottweiler, a girlfriend with good intentions but an unsure heart, and a man whose vanity is larger than his regrets, there’s plenty to please a fair portion of the population.

Fusion, pop, mystery, whatever...it was the last two pages that got me; and they came so unexpectedly, blowing me pleasantly far, far away from that dirty Manhattan night into something quintessentially American in its dreamy cleanliness. In short, by following Monty Brogan to his finale, I was rewarded with a literary rendering of near magic. And though there may have been flawed byways on that route, I have no regrets in following Benioff’s path less taken.


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