The 25th Hour, by David Benioff, was passed on to me by my son. At the risk of sounding sexist, I didn’t fancy it all that much; from the blurb on the jacket, it struck me as a quintessential boy’s book. It seemed to typify one of those fast-paced American thrillers in which cops and robbers all speak with gravelly voices out of the corners of their mouths, Humphrey Bogart style, and wisecrack with each other while letting their guns do all the serious talking. However, since I think that everyone’s reading should once in a while include something from outside his or her literary comfort zone and that one of this book’s more obvious virtues is that it is very short, I decided to give it a go.
I was very pleasantly surprised. The novel is set in New York and tells the story of the (anti-) hero’s last twenty-four hours of freedom before he has to present himself at Otisville Jail to serve a long sentence for drug-trafficking. His name is Monty. David Benioff succeeds in pulling off the difficult coup of making the reader both sympathise with him and recognise the enormity of his crime. This is achieved in an under-stated way, using just a few sentences, by describing the death from drug abuse of one of Monty’s friends and how it has continued to devastate the addict’s family.
The quality of the writing is superb. New York itself almost becomes a character in the novel. It is described at every hour of the day as Monty visits various haunts within the city and bids farewell to his friends, often in gritty and unconventional ways. Whilst it would perhaps be stretching it to compare it with the Dublin depicted by James Joyce as Leopold Bloom conducts his own twenty-four-hour odyssey, David Benioff clearly knows New York well and portrays it with affectionate precision.
The names that he chooses for his characters are superb. Monty’s friends are called Jakob and Kostya; his Puerto Rican girlfriend has the unforgettable (and ironic) name Naturelle. Jakob, a teacher, has a crush on a seventeen-year-old pupil whose name, Mary d’Annunziato, suggests association with the Blessed Virgin; the girl herself turns out to be a latter-day Lolita from the Bronx.
Finally, there is Doyle, the pit-bull terrier, whom Monty rescued after he had been abandoned at the side of the motorway and nursed back to health. Monty himself loves Doyle because he believes that his care of the dog is the only truly selfless thing that he has ever done. Aside from the moral that the reader is intended to draw from this (which is not laid on too heavily), the fact that Monty’s imprisonment means that he and Doyle will have to be separated, probably forever, is a detail ingenious for the way in which it inspires pity for Monty’s fate. If only he hadn’t dunnit, he and Doyle would still be bouncing along the sidewalks, though Monty would be financially poorer and Naturelle might well have moved on to someone with a fatter wad of notes in his money-clip.