switterbug (Betsey)'s Reviews > Next

Next by James Hynes
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Feb 22, 11

Read in April, 2010

On a sweltering spring day in Austin, Texas, Kevin Quinn spends several hours exploring the city while waiting to go to a job interview downtown. He has just arrived from Ann Arbor, where he is a small-time academic editor, and a big-time commitment-phobe with women. He is thinking of leaving his latest girlfriend, Stella, but he hasn't even told her about the interview. Over the course of the day, the reader will be thrust into the poignant loves that Kevin has left behind in the wake of the last twenty-five years.

Kevin, at 50, is used to attracting younger women, and having imagined sexual encounters, but he knows his number is up soon. His enlarged prostate and whisker-sprouting ears are a sign of the vicissitudes of middle-age. But he continues to pamper his inner adolescent, and ill-advisedly follows a comely twenty-year-old woman from the plane and attempts to keep her at close range. Perspiration accumulates on his brow and under his arms, and he makes a pretty ragged mess of his suit as he proceeds to have some risible misadventures over at the hike-and-bike trail.

As an Austin resident, I was thrilled to read such adroit descriptions of local landmarks. I don't think I can ever look at the wide bleached sky or view the Austin skylight the same ever again. Hynes' descriptions venture into the hyperreal, and he refers to the "Longhorn Tower" where he has his interview as Barad-dur, right out of the Tolkien universe. Austin occasionally lifts to fantasy heights in Hynes' literary universe.

Hynes writes with dazzling and savvy prose and has a keen eye for the details of human behavior and countenance. He described a moment dancing with a woman he loved-- "She was always watching you like she was right on the cusp of derision. But in a good way..." Kevin's vulnerability is both hilarious and heartbreaking, and his ability to acknowledge his limitations mitigates the blustery and bloated ego that keeps him at arm's length in relationships.

This darkly comic story of a man's confrontation with his moral ambiguity is biting and marvelously warped, absurd and surreal. The author structured juxtapositions between past and present with a split-second precision that fairly teeters and often had me laughing out loud. One moment he would be with Stella in an Ann Arbor food market, and the next sentence or paragraph, he would be chasing a woman at a same-named market in Austin. His scenes are elaborately detailed with spot-on timing. The results are uncanny and ripe with an ominously comic gusto.

This is an author who knows how to blend highbrow, lowbrow and pop culture to create a frenzied portrait of a desperate and appalling man that you nevertheless root for and empathize with--a lecherous loser who keeps searching, who never gives up, who strives for a tattered integrity. He knows his fatal flaws, his salacious impetuosity, his lack of engagement with the future. In a particularly revealing scene in a Mexican restaurant, he shares some pivotal moments of his past with a beautiful woman who is compelled to first share a secret of her own. If you are not touched by that scene, then this probably isn't a book you will connect with conclusively. Later, there is a mordant scene in a bathroom of a clothing store that is searingly bald and telling.

There is a moral compass here--it is cracked and bent, but Kevin is holding onto it for dear life. The author delivers a magnificent ending, a daring and audacious finale that airlifts every emotion simultaneously. Hynes gives us a complex and ultimately sympathetic character portrayed through a brutal and magnified lens.

Addendum: This author likes Firesign Theater and quoted them in the book, which indubitably delighted me--so way cool. Let's to the Winter Palace!
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