Jason Henderson's Reviews > Next

Next by James Hynes
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Apr 08, 10

Read from April 03 to 08, 2010

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.




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message 1: by Patty (new)

Patty Fantastic review, Jason. This is the first time that a review on Goodreads has actually convinced me to add a book I've never heard of to my "buy this as soon as possible" list. Your description of Quinn reminds me a little of the character at the heart of A Confederacy of Dunces (though Ignatius J. Reilly seems more desperate and less able to function in the world than Kevin Quinn as you've described him). Do you think it's a fair comparison?


Jason Henderson Oh, Kevin is much less insufferable than Ignatius. For one thing he's obnoxious but much more so in his head; he has a hard-coded need to "KYMS," "Keep Your Mouth Shut." Ignatius seemed like someone I'd try hard not to be in the same room with; Kevin will strike you as pretty much one of our friends.

Here is a man, Kevin, who's vaquely, maybe deeply, dissatisfied with his current relationship and life. But he talks like someone we'd like.


Jason Henderson By the way-- I just have to point this out-- the book on the whole is very strong medicine. I was thinking about the latter half very deeply for several days. Fair warning!


message 4: by Patty (new)

Patty Sounds like a great book for mid-summer when I'm looking for a challenge and am refreshed enough to grapple with big ideas.


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