Nextby James Hynes Published 09 Mar 2010
|Publisher||Reagan Arthur Books|
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One Man, one day, and a novel bursting with drama, comedy, and humanity.
Kevin Quinn is a standard-variety American male: middle-aged, liberal-leaning, self-centered, emotionally damaged, generally determined to avoid both pain and responsibility. As his relationship with his girlfriend approaches a turning point, and his career seems increasingly pointless, he decides to secretly fly to a job interview in Austin, Texas. Aboard the plane, Kevin is simultaneously attracted to the young woman in the seat next to him and panicked by a new wave of terrorism in Europe and the UK. He lands safely with neuroses intact and full of hope that the job, the expansive city, and the girl from the plane might yet be his chance for reinvention. His next eight hours make up this novel, a tour-de-force of mordant humor, brilliant observation, and page-turning storytelling.
As far as reviews go, this book went from 2 stars to 4 stars in the last 50 pages, which only proves(much to my chagrin) that you shouldn't ever abandon a book. This book really kicked me on my ass and is another one outside of my typical comfort zone. I have no problem reading books with male protagonists. Sometimes I think its like seeing inside a male mind, which will always be fascinating to a girl with no brothers or boyfriends in sight. But Kevin is no ordinary man. Or at least I hope so, for the sake of humanity. After reading Franzen, I didn't think characters could get anymore self absorded, but then I was introduced to Kevin, the main character in Next. The guy would seriously not shut up. One minute he's afraid of dieing in a terrorist attack, the next minute he's fantasizing and literally chasing after women he sees on the way to an interview, even though he is in a seemingly great relationship with his sort of girlfriend. The guy was never happy, always looking for the next best thing (Ha, I think I just figured out the title!). At first I felt bad about what happened in the end, and it sort of erased my disgust for Kevin. But now I'm not so sure. What's so great about someone if they only realize they are an asshole while they are near death? Anyways, aside from the story, I do think James Hynes can write. If he's all about visceral endings, I'm not sure my emotions can handle anymore of his books, but I do understand why this was picked to be in the Tournament of Books. People in other reviews likened him to Woolf or Joyce for his modern day stream of consciousness writing. A lofty compliment for sure, but he's definitly provides something new and unusual to the contempory writers pool.
In Austin, Texas, when the heat comes, it makes the city glitter-—there’s so much light coming down that the world can’t absorb it, and as you walk the streets, you can go snowblind. I never heard anyone describe this thought, ever, until James Hynes’ NEXT.
This is a serious and seriously well-written book—so well observed in its study of one man, main character Kevin Quinn, that by the time we’re done we feel we know Kevin because we’ve become him. It’s a neat trick. Kevin, a man we follow through a few hours of downtime before a job interview in Austin, Texas, has many faults, all of them nakedly displayed, but they’re familiar and we’re beyond forgiving them because we own them. And at the same time we get to see the goodness in the guy. By the end of the book we are desperately identifying with him.
The conceit of Jim Hynes’ narrative is a moment-by-moment reporting of the thoughts of Kevin, whose life is made up of equal parts dissatisfaction and annoyance. He has a job in Ann Arbor that he doesn’t care for and is hoping the vaguely-described Austin gig might jump-start his life, or at least find him a way out of the rut his life has become. So the book begins with Kevin on a plane lusting after the younger woman next to him (always, always, Kevin is lusting,) and the narrative follows him out to the sun-baked Texas city, where he explores coffee shops, grocery stores, and green belt trails, at least one Mexican restaurant, and finally the interview, which turns out to be a more unusual experience than he expected. It’s a big day for Kevin in Austin, then, as he wanders and at every moment, from someone’s glance or comment or the song on the radio, he thinks about his own past.
That sounds so dreary, and yet it’s not—Kevin is great company as long as we’re going to hitch a ride in someone else’s brain. As he kills time, he observes the corporate luxury of Starbucks, the ubiquity of music at all times, the strange class-ism of the terminally hip, and decades of loves and losses. In this book alone he has at least two encounters with women that would be promising for Kevin’s happiness if he were wired to find happiness on this afternoon.
I loved this character in the way he constantly struggled with his baser and grander aspects. There’s a moment when he curses himself for not wanting to make anyone feel badly, even if they deserve it or if it would simply make him feel better. Hynes describes this as the curse of being able to see both sides, and so it is. There’s a moment when he apologizes for sundry small insults he has made and compares himself to a 14-year-old, and the description is honest and heartfelt. Everyone has awkward days, and Hynes observes them with scalpel precision.
Part of the magic of NEXT is that Hynes has studied his characters so well—Kevin isn’t everyman, he’s a man, from a particular place, going to a particular place, and he’s lived a particular life. Just a few clicks, a few years off Kevin’s age, and Hynes would have written an utterly different man—different songs in his head, different mentors. Change Austin to Boston and this would be an utterly different book. The particulars matter in this book, and we draw the universal truths from the book’s bravery to be particular.
A lot has been made of this books’ similarity to Mrs. Dalloway, and to that I can only say that I liked this better than Woolf’s book, but that’s probably because this is my world that Hynes is struggling to explore. Also, more happens in this book, if that matters. To say more would be criminal.
To the author, I want to say: GOOD GOD. REALLY???
This book had me on a roller coaster. I had read that the last 50 pages would throw you sideways. So, even after this book turned out to be one sexual fantasy and daydream and remembrance after another, and I felt way more drawn into a middle-aged-man's mind than I wanted to be, I kept plodding on.
Then, there was that moment in the restaurant with Claudia. The one where I thought it was all going to turn around. The one where I thought he was going to realize why he was how he was and begin to change himself, to infuse his life with meaning and real relationship.
And then. SPOILER ALERT
He's been deathly afraid of a terrorist attack for the whole book. And, wonder of wonders, what happens but a TERRORIST ATTACK! How original! How life-changing! God, could we have something that he could do something about? Rather than him just being victim yet again? Really. Really? Really. I am astonished and incredulous. I WASTED my spring break reading time for this???
And all this with really good writing. I just wish the content had matched it. It had so much promise....
I've always enjoyed James Hynes as an author who writes well, can deliver a good zinger with panache, shares my bemused exasperation at the follies of academic life, and - most importantly - spins a good tale. Earlier books of his that I've read had several aspects in common - a definite sympathy for the underdog, the skewering of those in power in a plot involving some element of the fantastic (zombies, magic powers, the occult, ancient druidic ritual).
In "Next", Hynes forgoes the fantastic element in a book which is more ambitious and more serious than its predecessors. The territory is familiar - the protagonist, Kevin Quinn, an editor at the University of Michigan's Center for Asian Studies, is low man on the totem pole and has suffered his share of the petty humiliations that are the stuff of academic life. Just turned 50, Kevin is in full midlife turmoil; as the story opens we see him in midflight, bound for an interview in Austin, tormenting himself about various concerns, both personal (should he leave Ann Arbor, what about his live-in girlfriend, isn't he already over the hill?) and global (nervousness about being blown up on the plane, on the bus, at the mall). A spate of recent terrorist bombings in various European cities just adds to the general sense of menace - Quinn is particularly shaken by the fact that one of the suicide bombers in Glasgow was also named Kevin.
The entire book unfolds within the confines of Quinn's head, following his day's itinerary through Austin, with multiple flashbacks as he revisits every relationship of his adult life, the women he pursued successfully and those that got away, the deaths of both his father and his grandfather. Severe claustrophobia is inevitable. Despite some snappy writing by Hines, who never loses his sense of humor, no character is interesting enough to sustain a full 300 pages.
But of course there's that ever more noticeable drumbeat of menace as the day wears on. So one keeps on reading. Reviewers have debated whether or not the (extremely powerful) final 50 pages "justify" some of the slackness in the earlier parts of the book. I can't really answer this question, as it seems silly to me. What I can say is that you will finish the book, and you won't leave your seat for the final section.
Though I wish I felt differently, in the final analysis I think that James Hynes didn't quite pull off this ambitious effort. Even viewed as an honorable failure, "Next" is more interesting than most of its competitors.
With his weird and wicked academic satires -- "Publish and Perish," "The Lecturer's Tale" -- James Hynes captured the fetid anxiety of university life, but now he's graduated to the pervasive fear that defines our age. In the very first sentence of this new novel, Kevin Quinn works himself into a panic by imagining a Stinger missile hitting his plane as he lands in Austin. "Am I the only one who worries about stuff like this?" Kevin wonders. "Or does everybody, these days?" That missile doesn't strike, of course -- it's just nerves -- but what follows is the most original and poignant story I've read about living under the shadow of random acts of terror.
"Next" shouldn't work at all, let alone succeed as it does. It's a plotless, desultory novel about a commitment-phobic man walking along the hot streets of Austin as he waits for a job interview. Only two months have passed since the publication of another novel about a wandering man: Joshua Ferris's dreary, though elegantly written "Unnamed," but "Next" is a more cathartic journey. Hynes knows exactly where he's going with this story, and his compulsive patter is witty and alluring enough to keep us running alongside Kevin. Soon enough, it's obvious that what looks like a lonely guy just marking time is really a man engaged in a moving, brilliantly composed act of introspection.
At 50, Kevin hasn't so much matured as learned how to simulate maturity. He's horny enough to regard every woman he sees as a potential sexual partner, but "his default liberal guilt and his midwestern decency jerk him short like a leash." He associates all the significant moments of his life with particular songs and failed relationships, like some Nick Hornby wannabe. "He's an underachiever in every way he can imagine," Hynes writes, "professionally, personally, financially." Wandering around this strange town, "almost nauseous with melancholy," he considers that he has "no kids, no career, really, no overriding passion in his life, and an ex-girlfriend who at long last heaved him over the side to have children with a [younger] man."
In the fluid riff of cultural commentary, funny quips and rueful memories that constitute most of this novel, we learn that Kevin is running away from his new girlfriend and an editing job he loathes at a university press in Ann Arbor. He knows no one in Texas and has told no one back home that he's here for the interview -- all part of the exciting fantasy of a clean break, the promise of a new beginning. "It's not a real choice so much as it's a choice between two equally risible clichés: Count Your Blessings, or Follow Your Dreams," Hynes writes in a voice that captures Kevin's own ironic derision. "Look it up (\mid-lif kri-ses\ n) and find a line drawing of Kevin Quinn in a sporty little convertible, with his perky young -- well, younger -- girlfriend beside him, her hair loose in the breeze. See MIDDLE-AGED MAN."
This strange story is always on the go, even though its real motion is entirely internal. Instead of preparing for his job interview, Kevin spends the hours before the appointment channeling "his inner nineteen-year-old," stalking a young woman he saw on the plane -- aroused by "the mild thrill of his own shamelessness." He has no idea what he'd say if he actually made contact with her -- "What am I going to do, strike up a conversation with her like some drunken Shriner?" -- but she reminds him of past girlfriends who got away, and that inspires a free association of sexual nostalgia and humiliation, swinging wildly from inane optimism to crushing self-doubt.
All this wandering and middle-aged ogling takes place against a background of fresh terrorist acts in Europe. On the television and radio, reports are still pouring in about a set of coordinated suicide bombings. Hynes weaves these atrocities into the background of Kevin's regrets. It's a dark symphony of gallows humor, the fatalism and self-absorption that run through our distracted lives nowadays. "After the Fall of the Wall and the Fall of the Two Towers and the Fall of Kevin's Fiftieth Birthday," he really has no idea how to live -- how to stop running and shirking and avoiding. "He wishes he were a Republican," Hynes writes, "full of absolute certainty and righteous, tribal wrath."
Believing in nothing, Kevin finds the terrorists' passion as fascinating as it is frightening. But before the story reaches its devastating conclusion, he'll be given a chance to reassess himself. Hang on tight: The novel's mournful overtones rise slowly but firmly in that amazing voice -- jocular and honest, clear-eyed and tragic, always winning. By the time you notice "Next" picking up speed, it's rushing along so fast you'll be completely defenseless when it rips your heart right out.
I don't know if I regret reading this book or not. The first two thirds follows this creepy man as he stalks a woman less than half his age around Austin and replays in his mind all the sex he's had with other women throughout his life. At one point he compares the blow jobs of different women. Literally every girl he sees there is a gratuitous description of her body. I almost gave up before I finished part one. Then part two was almost as bad and I wanted to scream.
I assume you're supposed to empathize with this skeeveball because he's not intentionally a skeeveball, but just unwilling to accept that he's middle aged and hot little things don't want to fuck him anymore. But I guess I just don't have it in me. So when I get to the third part, I am almost hoping for something bad to happen to him.
*** small spoiler alert ***
Yet when something bad finally does happen to him I feel bad. So I guess the moral of the story is there are some things that are so bad I wouldn't even wish them on a stalker skeeveball.
And I hate that the author tried to play on 9-11 fears. Such a cheap shot... Especially because he did it with no nuance whatsoever. His beating the readers over the head with it makes the whole 3rd part seem overdone and corny.