Eight deliciously accessible stories follow the author’s first novel (The 25th Hour, 2001) and his screenplay for Troy.
All of these will hook you fast, and they’ll keep you hooked, with the possible exception of “De Composition,” a run-of-the-mill post-apocalyptic sketch. One story, “The Devil Comes to Orekovo,” is thrillingly good. An 18-year-old soldier, Leksi, is on patrol with two hardened veterans. They order him to kill a defenseless old woman suspected of funding terrorists, though Leksi has never killed anybody. The soldiers are Russian and the woman is Chechen, but this study of war’s brutal choices transcends time and place; the denouement has the satisfying inevitability of a work of art. Not quite in that league, but impressive nonetheless, is the title story, where Tabachnik, a talent scout for a major West Coast label, has his eyes on a singer with a punk-rock band playing New York. Moving cautiously, he detaches her from a poorly written contract and from her boyfriend, SadJoe, who stages a futile protest on the Los Angeles sidewalks. In the battle between blue-collar solidarity and really big bucks, old loyalties don’t stand a chance. Show-biz opportunity comes knocking again in the slighter but well-crafted “Garden of No” as actress/waitress June gets her big break and, hating herself, flees from boyfriend Sam, the short-order cook. Benioff further demonstrates his range in “Barefoot Girl in Clover” (a former high school football star who goes searching for the lost love of his youth gets whipsawed by the past), “Merde for Luck” (two gay men struggle to stave off AIDS), and the barbed whimsy of “Zoanthropy,” in which lions roam Manhattan and a humble museum guard claims he’s The Lover of the East Coast. The big city nurtures tall tales, a point made again in “Neversink,” in which a young woman lures suitors by inventing a father who was, supposedly, a ferocious ex-biker and pal of Sinatra’s.
Technical accomplishment that’s matched by a generosity of spirit.