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The familiar quest for fame

When the Nines Roll Over And Other Stories David Benioff Viking: 226 pp., $23.95

August 22, 2004|Ben Ehrenreich | Ben Ehrenreich is a writer whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, the Village Voice and McSweeney's.

You will not search in vain for links between David Benioff's short story collection "When the Nines Roll Over" and his screenplay for "Troy." The first is concrete enough, a brief allusion in the story "Merde for Luck," easily the most emotionally gripping of Benioff's tales, set not in ancient Ilium but in early-1990s New York. "That night I understood the old story for the first time," says Alexander, the HIV-infected narrator, who is alarmed to find his own health improving as his lover (whom he calls Hector!) wastes away. "[T]he wooden horse is Love, allowed through the gates against all warnings, bearing its cargo of killers, men with long knives who crawl from the dark belly and burn the city down."

It's an uncomfortable story. The opening fleetingly appears to promise high scatological slapstick -- Alexander soils his airplane seat mid-flight -- but with each page, Benioff digs us deeper and deeper into the scorched terrain of grief, rage and self-reproach. He is at his raw, ruthless best here. (His tender depiction of a relationship between men, though, does make it all the more difficult to forgive Benioff for going to such lengths to closet Achilles on-screen -- Patroclus a cousin? He might as well cut out the gods.)

The other link is less obvious, and less fortuitous. In the screenplay, Benioff (who also adapted his novel, "The 25th Hour," into a script for Spike Lee) focuses on Achilles' thirst for glory, the only form of immortality available to him. But old-school archaic glory is somehow foreshortened, via Brad Pitt's puffed pectorals, into its glitzy contemporary cousin: celebrity. Achilles wants to be a superstar!

That same quest for fame or glamour or any old illusion that might throw some shine on life is the subject of many of Benioff's tales. In the title story, a cynical A&R rep named Tabachnik uses a young singer's desire to be a star to seduce her away from her gritty-but-real punk band and into his bed and a six-record deal.

In "The Garden of No," an actress/waitress gets a big sitcom role and runs away from her less-than-glamorous short-order cook/poet boyfriend. In "The Barefoot Girl in Clover," a onetime high school football star who never made it big goes looking for all his long-gone promise in the form of a girl he kissed one teenage afternoon. In "Neversink," a humdrum grad student lives vicariously through the larger-than-life lies his girlfriend tells about her dad.

Like Tabachnik, Benioff's other characters do "not believe in the grand scheme of things. There were little schemes and there were big schemes but there was no grand scheme." They are not interested in anything as banal as meaning, or as theological as redemption, but they do very sincerely want to be famous, or at least to be touched by fame. The emptiness of their ambitions is implicit -- as Tabachnik has it, "whatever was floating on top, it wasn't cream." But too many of these stories end up feeling as hollow as their protagonists: slick, familiar, flat.

When Benioff's imagination strays outside the well-trod perimeters of hipster ennui, it takes him to some interesting places. To Chechnya even, in a sad, quiet story about three Russian soldiers in the snowy Caucasus. Or, perhaps most delightfully, in "Zoanthropy," to a New York that looks a lot like the one we know, except that on occasion lions run loose through the streets. The solitary and virginal narrator, the son of a distinguished lion hunter, wanders the city from Yorkville to Far Rockaway, and on particularly bad days heads for the Frick Museum, where a painting of St. Francis in ecstasy never fails to bring him comfort. At the Frick he befriends a security guard named Butchko, recently anointed "the Greatest Lover on the East Coast. Not counting Florida, they're independent." It's a sweetly funny, melancholy story, afloat in whimsy and affection and in mysterious ways about sex, frustration and various shapes and sizes of unquenchable longing. *

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From When the Nines Roll Over

A sad smile lingered on his face as he regarded me. It was the Smile for Mackenzie, the expression he reserved for me alone. This is what you need to know about my father: He was a man who made a living killing animals, though he adored animals and disdained men. But I was his love's son and that gave me immunity from disdain, immunity from the cool hunter's stare he aimed at everyone else. His turn in this world was far from gentle, but he was gentle with me.

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