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Next by James Hynes
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's review
Apr 10, 2010

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bookshelves: read-in-2010
Read from April 09 to 10, 2010

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.
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04/09/2010 page 120

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