Poetry Madness

Saturday, February 8th, 2003


The 25th Hour

by David Benioff

A review by Chris Bolton

Envy has a brutal right hook that drops me to the mat every time. It never swings harder than when I read about a young writer who has "made it" while I continue to struggle. I don't want to name names, but several of these writers (jonathansafranfoer) rub me the wrong way (jonathansafranfoer), especially when it's clear that at least part of their success is due to connections, such as prominent creative writing teachers who offer their gilded names for cover blurbs (jonathansafranfoer). The ultimate proof, of course, is the value of the work itself, and my envy never gets stronger or more bitter than when the work itself fails to live up to the hype (as in the case of, oh, say, jonathansafranfoer).

On occasion, however, the work outshines the hype. Such is the case with David Benioff, whose first published book, The 25th Hour, was well-reviewed but wasn't a runaway bestseller. Nonetheless, Benioff sold the film rights to Tobey Maguire (yes, Spider-Man) and adapted the screenplay himself. The movie was directed by Spike Lee and released this year to respectful reviews and mediocre box-office receipts. Benioff's screenwriting career, meanwhile, has skyrocketed: he recently sold a script for $1.8 million, to be directed by David (Fight Club) Fincher.

Some may argue that the work alone should be the subject of a review, not the hype surrounding it or even the author. But we don't live in a vacuum; despite the writer's best intentions, the publicity and mythology inform the work itself. If we come to an overpraised first novel with knives out (say, something by jonathansafranfoer), it's true, we're likely to draw blood. The best such books overcome their hype and in this instance, Benioff emerges victorious.

The 25th Hour begins with 23-year-old drug dealer Monty Brogan stopping on the West Side Highway to put an abandoned pit bull out of its misery: "A crippled castoff, left ear chewed to mince, hide scored with dozens of cigarette burns..." But the battered dog turns out to have some fight in him:

[Monty] leaned a little closer and the dog scrambled upright, lunged for the man's face, came close enough that Monty, stumbling frantically backward, could smell the dog's foul breath. The effort left the pit bull panting, his compact, muscular frame quivering with each rasped breath. But he remained in his crouch, watching the two men, his ears, the mangled and the good, drawn back against his skull.

Impressed with the animal's fighting spirit, Monty saves the dog and keeps him as a pet. Later, Monty reveals that saving Doyle was the most selfless thing he'd ever done; it's also clear that he sees something of himself in the dog's unwillingness to lay down and die when expected.

The rest of the novel follows Monty's last twenty-four hours of freedom; in the twenty-fifth hour, he will report to prison to begin a seven-year term. Monty's longtime friends, Jakob and Slattery; his girlfriend, Naturelle; and his father, a retired fireman, all struggle with their own lives and concerns even as they deal with how to bid farewell to Monty.

The compressed time frame is typical in screenwriting and relatively rare in literary fiction, where terms like "sprawling" are considered high praise. As a result, The 25th Hour moves briskly and assuredly. Benioff keeps the chapters short enough to leave the reader wanting more not because the book is lacking in content, but because the sharp characterizations, clever dialogue, and intriguing situations are irresistible.

Benioff possesses a virtuoso screenwriter's knack for producing taut scenes brimming with tension that start with a bang and end before we've had our fill. He also wields a canny insight into his characters and human beings in general that keeps his spare prose style from reading like a screenplay blueprint. While reading Empire Falls, I noted that Richard Russo finds each character's strength and weakness within the first paragraph of their introduction. I found, in The Corrections, that Jonathan Franzen is likewise gifted, though he tends to linger on the weaknesses. Benioff has a similar gift for encapsulating the best and worst of each character, though his is somewhat less pronounced than Russo's and far less verbose than Franzen's. Here, for instance, Monty's childhood friend, Jakob, assesses himself:

Jesus, what a geek, he thinks now, appraising his reflection in the mirror behind the stacked bottles of liquor, his small pointed face peering out between bars of whiskey. His own expression, he notes unhappily, suggests Nervous Agitation. I look like a ferret, he decides, a prepubescent ferret in a Yankees cap. He wrinkles his nose and bares his teeth. A definite rodent.

The 25th Hour was a finalist for the John Creasey Memorial Dagger Award for Best First Crime Novel, but it isn't really a crime novel. The crime has already been committed and the punishment doled out before the present-day story even begins. This is more of an aftermath novel, in which the criminal and those around him deal with the consequences of his actions. Whether selling drugs warrants seven years hard time, with all manner of violent offenders, is a question that Benioff leaves largely unasked, save for a brief, tense debate between Jakob and Slattery that stays unresolved.

It is a testament to Benioff's talents as a storyteller that he doesn't stop the tremendous momentum of his novel to weigh such issues, preferring to let the reader come to his/her own conclusion. It is perhaps worth noting that my bookmark sits about halfway through The Corrections, having hit a long, dry, seemingly endless passage in which Franzen seems compelled to expound on the inner life of two characters on a boat and all I want him to do is move on to the good stuff. Benioff's novel, at less than a third the length of Franzen's, displays the sort of economy of style that I appreciate; leaving me wanting more rather than giving too much (or, in Franzen's case, way, way, WAY too much).

The 25th Hour is a brief but exhilarating read. I finished the novel late one night, only a few days after starting it, and though my eyes were weary and heavy, I couldn't bear to put it down. The final paragraph runs for four pages and is beautifully poignant: hopeful, heartbreaking, and ambiguous all at once. It's enough to overcome one's envy, grateful for once that the hype is deserved.

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