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Moving Targets

Reviewed by Victor LaValle
Sunday, October 3, 2004; Page BW06

WHEN THE NINES ROLL OVER

and Other Stories

By David Benioff. Viking. 223 pp. $23.95

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THE SECRET GOLDFISH

By David Means. Fourth Estate. 211 pp. $22.95

The literary world blasts commercial fiction -- rightly -- for its formulaic plotlines and predictable characters but gives its own books a pass. It ignores the obligation to provide the audience with genuine reading pleasure. It risks lulling readers into comas. Luckily, the best stories in two new collections by David Benioff and David Means will rouse readers out of this awful sleep.

Benioff is a storyteller in the old style: He creates an interesting premise, then steps aside to let it play out. There's a reason this kind of writing has lasted for ages; simply put, it's fun to read. The successful stories in When The Nines Roll Over are so thoroughly enjoyable that you may not reflect on their acute perceptions until you've put the book down for a while.

One such tale, "The Devil Comes to Orekhovo," starts out with ruthless power: "The dogs had gone feral. They roamed the countryside in packs, their claws grown long, their fur thick and unbrushed and tangled with thistles." The story's main character, Leksi, a young Russian soldier, is on a three-man patrol in Chechnya. The first few lines, about the fearsome dogs, might describe the men just as well (war warps many lives). Leksi and his more experienced companions are sent to capture a mansion that may be an outpost for Chechen rebels, but instead of a firefight the soldiers find an old woman, hiding, and Leksi is ordered to take her into the woods to shoot her. This is when the story acquires its true shape. The woman recounts, among other things, the titular folk tale, and upon learning it the reader understands that Leski's moral dilemma has been building from the first line. In her tale the devil comes looking for a wife but is tricked by the woman he wants, who escapes his clutches. But in the real world devils aren't so easily fooled. The question is not whether Leksi will be changed by this war, but how much. This is Benioff at his best -- big strokes, an epic in 36 pages.

David Means, meanwhile, thrives on the small scale, although his ambitions are just as grand. The Secret Goldfish is a collection of 15 stories, most of them relatively short, propelled by language and oddity more than any straightforward narrative. Means works with digressions and leaps, locating his wisdom in the accumulation rather than delineation of details.

The man loves death, that's for sure, and thank goodness. Means enjoys himself when characters face slaughter, and this enjoyment transfers to the reader (or to this reader anyway). It's not that Means dwells on gore but that he describes the mortal moments in transcendent prose. In "Michigan Death Trip," he takes us through a series of brutal deaths in the 26th state. A hunter's end comes like this: "He's up near Muskegon, in state forest land, on a cool, clear, beautiful winter morning with the smell of pine sap and the windbreak of the tree line fine against the gray winter dawn. He's in peace. He's in silence. So the shot that comes out of the woods behind him, from the rifle of a kid just learning to hunt, a .22 shell -- making its way, spinning nicely, held steady by its rotations -- follows a clear trajectory to his chest through what, if it were slowed down enough, might be the most beautiful moment in Michigan history."

Both Means and Benioff excel when telling stories about real people caught in distinct dilemmas. Unfortunately, these collections suffer dearly when they forget this recipe. Though they are vastly different writers, their collections suffer from the same glaring problems. The first is that neither has more than one memorable main character in the entire book. There are a wealth of lively secondary players and interesting plots, but time and time again the stories are steered by underwhelming men (and women) who plod along until you, the reader, are struggling to understand why this chucklehead is the one you're supposed to follow. This failing becomes evident more quickly in Benioff's writing because his language is clear and his stories direct, but the pieces in The Secret Goldfish can be just as sluggish. While we're told these main characters are experiencing heartache or confusion or pain, I never quite believed it. They moved, cried, breathed, yes, but their revelations felt cribbed from a literary handbook -- not earned, just expected.

There are times also, in both books, when the stories are too small for the great emotions being indulged. Both Means and Benioff can be mawkish, particularly about the heartfelt moments in men's uneventful lives, and stories like Benioff's "The Barefoot Girl in Clover," about a man trying to find a woman from his youth, and Means's "Counterparts," which follows the life cycle of an affair, are weak structures for the heavy lifting each ending requires. You wish they might vary the tone of the books a bit, let little stories do little jobs well, instead of doing big ones badly.

As much as I take both books to task, I still recommend them highly. Though each collection contains some forgettable stories, it's ludicrous to expect that books will be uniformly excellent. I, at least, have never read a perfect book and tend to think you find perfection only in stainless steel knives and television screens, things that are reliable but hardly transcendent. Benioff and Means risk falling flat by varying tone, plot or wisdom from one story to the next, and the reward for such daring is occasional excellence. That's no backhanded compliment: A handful of piquant stories offers so much more satisfaction than the flavorless porridge served up in much contemporary literary fiction. •

Victor LaValle's most recent book is "The Ecstatic," a novel.


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