When The Nines Roll Over by David Benioff

America - the land that's all jacket and no book
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The Independent Culture

Benioff illuminates the lost horizons and desperation of a population pre-occupied with gain, much as Jay McInerney did two decades ago. In the title story a burnt-out talent scout tempts a singer away from her band and her lover with a lucrative contract. Her principles desert her when she sees the cheque, brimming with enough zeros to "roll off like stray Cheerios". But the sincerity of her spurned boyfriend's reaction still manages to puncture all the greed.

Dignity in the face of adversity runs through the book. There may be no silver linings, but there are breaks in the cloud. Two of the stories are the most moving this reviewer has had the misty-eyed pleasure to read in a long time. "Merde for Luck" chronicles an initially bizarre romance between an artist and a dancer triggered by a gay take on the Eyes Wide Shut orgy. As the artist shaves the buff body of his suitor in front of a horny audience, fumblings fade into true love. It's a surprising trajectory that's made all the more poignant by the kind of tragedy that a condom-free Manhattan moment in the early 1990s was likely to induce.

In "The Barefoot Girl in Clover", Leon jettisons school for a day on the lam in a stolen soft top, heading west to California. He only makes it to the state border but still manages to encounter Maureen, a dirty blonde bundle of fun in cut-off denims. The pair's joyride takes in a Hershey bar factory, a near highway collision and the first rumblings of pubescent passion. Fourteen years later and Leon is a has-been football star searching for a point to his TV dinner and barfly life. So off he goes in search of Maureen only to end up at an awful realisation. It's a literary jolt that, as Bob Dylan wrote, twisted "like a corkscrew to my heart".

Two years ago Benioff adapted The 25th Hour for Spike Lee, and has been touting his screenwriting talents around Hollywood ever since. So not surprisingly there is a cinematic touch to his jumpcut plots. It's an effective technique that captures what E M Forster termed "the eternal moment". He also succeeds in creating a particular brand of loser: bittersweet, optimistic and content with the fight not the final bell. As the young Leon asserts, drumming the dashboard of a hot convertible and glancing at his girl: "there are days when you have to live in violation."

Benioff has nailed his nation like a pin struck through a Red Admiral, showcasing a dazzling but dead thing: a land that's all jacket and no book. The opposite, in fact, of this wonderful collection.

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