Tournament of Books 2015

Saturday, August 28th, 2004


When the Nines Roll Over and Other Stories

by David Benioff

A review by Chris Bolton

David Benioff's is not the sort of prose that gets singled out in reviews. I imagine critics referring to it as "workman-like" or "serviceable." It's the kind of prose I love, unspooling naturally and smoothly, never tripping over its author's lofty intentions or transparently self-conscious syntax. Throughout his short story collection, When the Nines Roll Over, Benioff often finds just the right clever, succinct phrase to communicate so much more than paragraphs of labored description can manage. When he writes, "Most of your apartment was bed, a giant bed with wrought-iron headboard and footboards," I'm right there with his narrator, skirting the edge of the bed to get around the cramped room. He gives me exactly what I need to be drawn in and not a single word or letter more.

But there's more to my connection than that. Lots of writers use a stripped-down writing style; some of them hit with me (Richard Russo springs to mind, and Benioff's compassion and knack for short, pungent phrases reminds me of a younger Russo) but plenty of them miss. This may simply be an instance of a reader's particular tastes dovetailing almost perfectly with an author's, so that every word Benioff writes, every story he tells, every character he creates, hits miraculously close to home.

Take, for instance, the short story "Neversink." Frankie, the narrator, falls in love with a woman at a dinner party, when she tells him about her recently deceased father, a larger-than-life figure:

"He was in a motorcycle gang in the sixties."
"Really? The Hell's Angels?"
"The Suicide Kings. They were a lot tougher than the Hell's Angels. When the Suicide Kings walked into a bar, the Hell's Angels just finished their drinks and left."

The conversation leads to their first date, watching a meteor shower. Frankie arrives in the park at night and searches for her:

I had forgotten to ask you where to meet, and the Meadow is huge, especially on a moonless night. I thought I saw you lying belly-down on a blanket and I leaned close to make sure.
"Back off, fuck-face," said a teenage girl.

Finally they meet up, and hit it off, and the details of their odd courtship — from Frankie's allergic reaction to her cats during lovemaking to the unnamed woman's stories about her late father — cast a spell over me, pulling me inside the relationship. Yes, I thought, this is how it should be, this is the connection lovers should form.

Inevitably things turn bad, and it's here that Benioff really caught me, as the details of their split hit a little too close to home:

We were together for nine months, and then we weren't together. One day I was your "cutie" and the next day I was "still your best friend"; it took me a while to figure out that a cutie is superior to a best friend, that a cutie gets to live with you and make love to you, while a best friend gets sympathetic cheek-kisses and long, meaningful hugs.

From here Benioff might go in several more literary directions, from cataloguing the follies of their relationship to exploring the narrator's neuroses and obsessions ad nauseam. Instead he takes the story in a direction that is thrilling and ultimately surprising, managing to wring suspense out of the simple opening of a sealed jar. And when the twist comes at the end, casting everything that came before it in doubt (as plot twists are wont to do), I felt the narrator's pain, the futility of believing one can actually know another person as truly as one wants to believe. When I finished "Neversink," I closed the book, took a deep breath, and felt an immense satisfaction, a sense of deep connection.

This sensation recurs throughout When the Nines Roll Over. The title story, in which a young singer leaves her drummer boyfriend for the A&R man who signs their band, manages to be cruel and painful without being nasty or vindictive. Even in his darkest moments, Benioff finds the humanity in his characters, however misguided or greedy or just plain weird they may be. He also possesses a cinematic style that creates vivid scenes loaded with juicy conflicts and delicious, wry humor. When SadJoe, the drummer, shows up outside the A&R man's apartment in the middle of the night and pummels his drum defiantly, the resulting confrontation is surprising, funny, and — active. That's the word I'm searching for. Benioff advances his stories not with postmodern tricks but through the actions of his characters — and he keeps them active, giving them interesting things to do instead of turning completely inward to let them study their own navels. Small wonder that Benioff has developed a second career as a screenwriter (he wrote the screenplay adaptation of his own novel, the excellent The 25th Hour, as well as this summer's Troy).

Benioff deftly avoids labels. Unlike some higher-profile writers whose stories, settings, characters, and themes share a certain... let's be charitable and call it "thematic unity" instead of "uninspired repetition," David Benioff's stories vary widely in all of these respects. Following the title story is "The Devil Comes to Orekovo," which focuses on three Russian soldiers in war-torn Chechnya. "Zoanthropy" is the story of the son of a renowned lion hunter who confronts his father's legacy in the flesh, while "Garden of No" is convincingly narrated by a young would-be actress, one of the many almost-rans and wannabes who populate diners and coffee shops throughout Los Angeles. The final story, "Merde for Luck," is a poignant, sometimes agonizing chronicle of gay lovers struggling with AIDS.

Benioff's stories thrilled me, made me laugh, had me making faces as I read, and reached me in a way that precious few short stories do. And when the book was finished, much as Frankie yearns to forsake his "best friend" status to resume his role as "cutie," I wanted to turn to the first page and revisit each story again.

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