by James Hynes
Little, Brown & Company
($23.99, 308 pp)
Kevin Quinn has recently turned fifty. His girlfriend thinks she might be pregnant. Kevin has lived in Ann Arbor all his life and now is an editor (the only editor) for the publications division of the Asian Studies department. On a whim he has applied for an editing job in Austin and has been invited for an interview. On a one day there-and-back trip, he flies out of Detroit the day a terrorist attack in Glasgow’s subway fills the terminal’s TV screens. He meets many people, connects with several, but is still very much alone in his own head as the day goes by.
Sounds like a real nail biter, huh? Well, not exactly. But James Hynes’s new novel “Next” is a book to be reckoned with. As the story of one day in a man’s life, it asks comparison to Joyce’s mighty “Ulysses” with today’s Austin filling in for Dublin in the early twentieth century.
Quinn walks the hot streets of Austin sweating and clothes array much as Bloom walked Dublin, both consumed by erotic thoughts about the women they see and the one back home, both subconsciously looking for a family and a son. Hynes’s sharp language finds no detail too small to capture, no contemporary reference too commercial, no sex fantasy too pornographic.
He can’t pass up a scene in Gaia, an upscale grocery, where he observes a “whole-food jihadist, an überfoodie, a lean boy with biceps and wispy beard, wearing a green Gaia T-shirt and matching ball cap.” He follows a sharp dressed woman with “a bust like a figurehead and an ass like two dogs fighting in a sack.” He recalls accompanying a girl in the eighties to a political action meeting: “Some nuclear freeze, pro-Sandinista, fuck Reagan kind of thing.”
Arriving four hours early for the interview, Quinn ventures out into the streets of Austin where he follows several women, drinks several iced teas in coffee shops, falls off a pedestrian walkway, eats Mexican lunch with a woman surgeon who has patched up his cuts after his fall, buys cheap slacks to replace those torn in the fall, and eventually finds his way to the 52nd floor of the skyscraper where his interview takes place.
During all this ambling about, we learn all there is to know about him. “…he’s an underachiever in every way he can imagine, professionally, personally, financially…[who] has no problem admiring a good-looking young woman…a standard-issue middle-aged man, [who] normally doesn’t walk around like a cartoon wolf, his eyes bugging out of his head, his tongue scrolling on the floor.”
By the time he gets around to his interview, Quinn has relived much of his past and come to the conclusion that perhaps he doesn’t really want to leave his girlfriend or Ann Arbor after all. He has mused about countless music groups going back to his days working in a record store when it was always playing “fucking Bob Seger or J. fucking Geils…or fucking Jethro Tull’s ‘Aqualung’.” Cirque de Soleil, he thinks, “was what entertainment would have been like if the Soviet Union had won the Cold War, fantastically fit but facelessly interchangeable performers in revealing outfits doing spectacular but meaningless stunts for a mindlessly bedazzled audience.” The terrorists who set off these musings continue to confound him. “Who bombs Glasgow…who knew Glasgow even had a subway system?”
As Quinn exits the elevator for his interview on the 52nd floor, he notices not only the attractive receptionist, but also the expansive view of the city out the floor-to-ceiling windows. At this moment Hynes wrenches what little plot there is in “Next” out of its morass of middle-aged angst and creates an action sequence worthy of some Bruce Willis movie. Having worked his way through 300 pages of amusing social commentary, Hynes shifts on the fly, and we are right there with Quinn as he reconsiders his life and ponders what he might have done differently if he had had a child earlier in his life.
“I’d gladly have given up all the pointless things I stupidly thought made my life worth living,” he writes to his imagined son, “I’d have laughed with you and lost my temper at you and burst into tears at the sight of you and begged fate or God or the universe to deal you a better hand…and I’d have done my best to make sure you turned out okay, that you had a good start in life, because I’m here to tell you, kiddo, there’s nothing certain about it, and you make all the preparation you can and then hope for the best.”
Midway through “Next” I found myself thinking that Hynes is a pretty funny guy who would be a great travel companion. “Next” may or may not be another “Ulysses” but it is meaty enough that I wouldn’t mind going back and reading it again.