David Benioff's debut novel The 25th Hour, which he triumphantly adapted to the screen for director Spike Lee, savors a convicted drug dealer's final day of freedom in much the same way a death-row inmate savors his last meal. The dealer's situation isn't nearly as grave, of course, since he'll be out of jail in seven years, perhaps less for good behavior. But for all intents and purposes, his world is ending: His girlfriend, devoted and loving though she is, will eventually stop visiting and move on; his comfortable, upper-middle-class lifestyle will evaporate forever; and, to paraphrase the Merle Haggard song, all his friends are going to be strangers. His punishment isn't unjust or undeserved, but Benioff cares enough about him to register the full impact of his loss.

Many of the young, lonely souls populating Benioff's accomplished short-story collection When The Nines Roll Over also watch their worlds come to an end—if not by their own doing, then by acts of fate that take control of their lives and their good sense. They try hard to make meaningful connections with other people and with the world, but even when they succeed, their happiness remains short-lived, doomed by chance or fraying lines of communication. In the harrowing "De Composition," Benioff makes these themes literal: With the apocalypse above, a man in a bunker relies on his computer as his sole remaining link to mankind, but when a virus eats away at its insides, his sanity goes along with it. Except for the occasional dip into the surreal, the other seven stories take place in a more recognizable universe, sketching beautifully wrought characters who follow their hearts wherever they lead, which is usually to despair.

Advertisement

Benioff's imagination stretches far enough to accommodate loners of varying genders, nationalities, proclivities, and obsessions, from a green Russian soldier stranded in Chechnya ("The Devil Comes To Orekhovo") to a wannabe actress who catches a break from waiting tables ("Garden Of No") to an HIV patient who recovers while his lover deteriorates ("Merde For Luck"). The most affecting story, "The Barefoot Girl In Clover," starts out as a story of liberation and romance, as a burly high-school football star steals his buddy's '55 convertible and detours to small-town Pennsylvania en route from New Jersey to the West Coast. His afternoon with a local sweetheart ends with a kiss that still resonates 10 years later, when he goes looking for her in the sad hope that they might have a future together. It's possible, even probable, that the girl doesn't remember their rendezvous, but as with the other characters in When The Nines Roll Over, Benioff keys into his hero's private, unrequited desire when everyone and everything else falls away.