James Hynes -- one of the most mordantly funny and original writers today -- is not widely known, and more's the pity. In NEXT, arguably his finest novel, he masterfully captures the post 9/11 world through the prism of an anti-hero in the midst of a midlife crisis.
Kevin Quinn, a liberal and self-absorbed Ann Arbor editor who is a classic textbook case of arrested development, lands in Austin, Texas to interview for a new job. Against the backdrop of a world that's still quaking from the terror assaults, his own life is shaky: his job is stullifying, his much younger girlfriend is clamoring for a baby, and he's been told that he "lacks tenderness and passion." The vast portion of the story takes place in just four-and-a-half hours. It's a feat that Ian McEwan was able to master in his novel SATURDAY; but it's challenging for most writers to sustain interest in such a tight timeframe. James Hynes succeeds.
The city of Austin itself comes alive under the pen of Mr. Hynes; even those who have never visited will wither in the hot Texas sun, and feel the energy of the coffee shops, Mexican restaurants, health food stores, running paths and more. With hours to go before the interview, Kevin Quinn spends an unremarkable day, rather creepily following the beautiful younger Asian-American girl he sat next on the plane whom he sees as his last hope of redemption, reminiscing about his carnal relationships with ex-girlfriends, wandering in and out of stores, and admiring the incredible looks and stamina of the Austin women. His life seems vaguely pathetic; there is no woman whom he doesn't obsess about and his wandering appears aimless as he waits to interview for a job he doesn't really want in a city he doesn't want to live in. Austin feels "foreign" to him, one more example of a man who is out of place in life.
Toward the end of the first part, he experiences a relatively minor fall -- tripped by a dog on an Austin bridge -- a harbinger for a much greater fall later on. He's "saved" by a Latina surgeon, who quite literally doctors to his injury, and, in ways he never did with younger girlfriend, he becomes reflective with her and with himself. Upon parting from her, he wonders: "What would I be willing to die for -- anything? Who would I be willing to die for? That's what passion does -- passion makes you stupid, passion loses you and then throws you away."
Much has been made already about the last 50 pages of this book -- Part 3 -- where there's a major shift in the plot and tone and where all Kevin's musings begin to form a cohesive shape. Each reader must experience the ending for herself or himself, but suffice to say, it WILL grab you into its vortex and shake you up. It's a true example of what fine writing can do. Ultimately, Mr. Hynes suggests that it's possible to get out of self-involvement, embrace one's passion and confront what's next...and sometimes, to obtain the flash of insight to welcome it.
on March 11, 2010
As I read this it went from O.K to so-so, to surprising and interestingly different at the end. Here's the upsides and downsides of it for me to help decide if it's for you:
- The book is written so you are living for a few hours inside the mind of a depressing, self-absorbed middle-aged man in the midst of a mid-life crisis while he kills time in Austin waiting for an interview. As a middle-ager myself, I hoped to like or at least empathize w/ him. But, for me, he never was really that much of an interesting or sympathetic character.
- It's divided into three sections. The first two (which make up about 90%) were slow-going for me. They led me to think that there was no real point to the story. Any minor action, from seeing the way someone walks to tearing his pants are seemingly only provided to trigger long, almost stream-of-concious type recollections and reflections about his past girlfriends and life.
- The author is a very descriptive writer with a gift for metaphor, themes and description. But, since the main character is mostly living in his own head dialogue and action are limited, and paragraphs often run for two or more pages as he spins through a memory or thought.
- The third section is the saving grace of the book. It combines action, dialogue, and a surprise ending that cleverly brings meaning to what appeared meaningless and reveals Hynes as a better crafter of a tale than I'd suspected. And, whether you like the ending or not, it is thought-provoking and becomes more so upon reflection of what preceded it.
Bottom Line: If you can stick with living in the head of a man in a mid-life crisis for awhile, and seemingly random morbid reflections on his life until you get to the end, you'll discover there's an interestingly crafted, thought-provoking result.
Brief summary, NO spoilers. (And I emphasis NO, because I think it's important to not know what happens next to fully enjoy this amazing novel.)
Kevin Quinn is a 50-something year old man who has been working for years as an editor for an academic publisher at the University of Michigan. He is a childless divorcee, and is currently in an ambivalent relationship with a younger woman named Stella. Unbeknownst to everyone in his home town in Ann Arbor, Kevin takes a planned one-day trip to Austin to interview for a new job. He does this in part because he is frustrated with his life, he feels he is an underachiever, and because he misses the feelings of promise and anticipation that came with youth. In short, Kevin is suffering from a real midlife crisis.
While on the plane to Texas, Kevin sits next to a pretty young Asian woman he names Joy Luck because of the book she is reading. After he lands and while waiting for his interview, Kevin spots her on the streets of Ausin and he begins a figurative and literal chase as he contemplates his life and his past relationships (and regrets), both with girlfriends and with family. Adding to Kevin's angst is the fact there there has been a new, alarming rash of terrorist bombings and attacks that have recently taken place in Europe and in the U.S.
Because I don't want to give anyway any spoilers, I don't want to say much more about the plot other than this book has several twists and turns and truly shocking moments. Even if this novel may seem to be a slow-go for some of you at first, hang in there, and I dare anyone to put it down during the incredible last 50 pages. The last part of the book will have you rethinking the book as a whole. It's a remarkable look at middle-age, and how our recollections and memories of past grievances color the way we look at ourselves and our future. And throw in a lot of humor to boot.
I highly recommend this book for anyone, but especially for those of us in our middle-age years and older, and of special note - for those of you familiar with Austin, Texas. There is a lot of description of that town, which would make this an additional treat for someone from there.
* Wanted to add that we choice this book for our book club, and it was one of the best discussions we've ever had. Everyone seemed to have a different opinion about this book, but by the time we were done with our discussion we each had a new appreciation for it.
`Next' opens with some of the most infectiously commanding sentences I've read in literature as of late. I was completely spellbound with how absorbed I became in the novel's first few pages. I never wanted to put it down.
And then, I did want to.
Here's the issue that I have with James Hynes' `Next'. The novel is a little too wordy and `stuffy' for its own good. It has a GREAT premise and a fantastic (albeit heartbreaking) ending that is totally worth reading just to experience, but getting there can, at times, become a chore.
The novel tells the story of Kevin Quinn, a fifty year old man who has traveled to Austin from Ann Arbor for a job interview. He's currently living with his younger girlfriend Stella, who has no idea that Kevin is thinking of leaving her and moving to Austin. Kevin has a commitment phobia that makes it difficult for him to really `love' someone (this apparently stems from some relationship issues in his youth). Stella has been pressuring him for a child, something that defines the word `commitment' and so he is attempting to escape her by moving. Aside from this mid-life crisis, Kevin is also a slave to the panic-stricken fear of terrorism, beings that this is post-911 and with one `bad news flash' after another, Kevin is anxious beyond belief.
The panic is certainly what made the novel's first few pages fly by with ease, for the way in which words and sentences were just thrown at you with an abrasive edge was tantalizing to my core.
Sadly, this wasn't kept up.
I have a few major issues with this novel, and I'm finding it hard to formulate exactly how I want to go about dissecting them for you. I'll start with the biggest issue, Kevin. I think maybe he is my only issue and that all of the other issues I have with the novel stem from him. I just don't like him. I know that there are all types of people, but Kevin is not the type of person you want to read a whole novel about. I couldn't help but think, while I was reading, that this would have made a far better film than a novel. The idea is near perfect and the structure of the novel is really suited for the big screen (and that whole "Austin, Texas, directed by Ridley Scott" part towards the end of the second section made me salivate at the idea of Russell Crowe tackling this role in a big screen adaptation). Unlikable characters are much more tolerable and even enjoyable in a film as apposed to a novel. For me, the character of Kevin is so immature that he becomes grating. Now, I think a lot of this is due to Hynes' writing style. Like I mentioned, he has an abrasive nature to the way he strings his sentences, BUT when he starts to babble too much about things that are not too gripping the novel (and our interpretation of Kevin) becomes obscured. Kevin is the definition of a horn-dog, a fifty year old man with the mentality of a teenage boy. When he first starts recalling his salacious encounters I thought "wow, Hynes' has gall to create a character that is human to a fault" but as the pages kept coming and Kevin kept recalling these encounters in a ridiculously bragging nature I began to consider his scope trivial and unimportant.
I stopped caring about him.
Hynes also bogs down the novel with far too many flashbacks that don't truly propel the novel anywhere. Instead of using the flashbacks to build a foundation of who Kevin really is or why he is the way he is, he uses the flashbacks to create more erotic encounters and paint Kevin as a self-centered and shallow man. In fact, there are only two flashbacks (or one flashback and one scene where he tells another person a story of his youth) that add any depth to Kevin as a person, and one of them comes at the most inopportune time.
Yes, when the ending is revealed and you are on the edge of your seat, gripping the pages intensely as you await the fate of our protagonist, it is disappointing to be pulled away from the action to be told, in excruciating detail, about the night his grandfather died.
For me, this is a novel that could have been magnificent. It takes place over one day, not even 24-hours, and so it really should have been edited down a bit. The novel needed a brisker pace in order to maintain the intensity it needed (spending nearly half the novel watching out protagonist chase after a young Asian girl he doesn't know but wants to bed borders on obnoxious and doesn't do anything to endear us to a man we are spending 320 pages with).
I hate that this book didn't nail it. I give this a C+. Still, this would make a spellbinding film (if the right liberties are taken with some of the novels ridiculous plot points) and I for one am just in awe of the way Hynes chose to end this.
Now, don't do like Stella and peak at the ending before you get there.
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!
on May 3, 2010
I am a huge fan of the author's previous books ("Kings of Infinite Space" is among my top 3 all-time favorites). So I was excited to see a new James Hynes novel after such a long wait. Unfortunately, his latest work, NEXT, turned out to be the most boring book I've ever suffered through. It's maybe 90% dull, repetitive stream of consciousness memories of the main character's former girlfriends, jobs and of Michigan. The women in the story are 2-dimensional characatures, and being from Michigan myself, I thought the Michigan references were crow barred into the mix with annoying, unnecessary detail. In fact, so much of the book is unnecessary to the story itself, I found myself skipping 2 or 3 pages at a time, rather than wade through the same ex-girlfriend memories I had already read though 5 times earlier in the story. By the end of the book, whatever "exciting" twists occur just don't matter, because by that point you're just trying to finish it on principle - like sitting through a bad movie because you already paid the $22 for the ticket.
James Hynes' "Next" has found itself on my bookshelf alongside some of my favorite middle-age introspective novels (e.g., Richard Ford's Bascombe novels, John Updike's Rabbit novels). Hynes' Kevin Quinn is an everyman for the post-911 era. "Next" is a thoughtful, downright hilarious, and beautifully written novel. This isn't exaggeration folks, this is a great book. The plot is pretty easy to summarize--Hynes gives us eight consecutive hours in the life of Kevin Quinn. Quinn is a 50-something University of Michigan employee (an editor of some kind) who flies from Ann Arbor to Austin for a job interview. Quinn is in the midst of an unsteady relationship with a younger woman (not his first) and he embarks on an unannounced trip south to interview for a job he's not even certain he wants. Sure, call it a mid-life crisis.
It's post-911 and in this novel the U.S. is under occasional attack from terrorists (not unlike 2010, but more rampant). Kevin's worried about the safety of his air travel and is somewhat uncertain as to his motivation to go for the interview in the first place. The reader is treated to Kevin's repeated commentary on those he interacts with during his flight and time in Austin prior to his job interview (particularly the women he encounters/observes). This commentary is often amusing and brilliantly rendered in the poetic and observant writing of Hynes. I found myself both laughing out loud and reciting multiple sentences to those I tried to push this book upon. Kevin arrives in Austin too early for his interview so he basically spends the day wasting time at coffee shops, in a park, at a restaurant, and shopping. This never gets boring because Hynes continually puts the amusing and introspective observations of Quinn on page after page. Eventually--and it's not a tiresome, but an entertaining journey--Quinn gets to interview time. I won't discuss the denouement of this fine novel as I don't want to risk a spoiler. The book ends and the reader will be glad to have spent eight hours with Hynes' Quinn. This is a great and moving and humorous and thoughtful novel and very highly recommended.
on October 26, 2010
This is the first Hynes novel I've read, and I know nothing about him. I love Austin, and I'm on vacation, so I picked it up at the resort town library based on the synopsis and blurbs and read it during a day at the pool and beach.
This is a writer who knows how to fairly artfully meander. He can fill pages with words. Lots of pages. Lots of words. Insights about the social evils of Whole Foods, Cirque de Soleil, Blue Man Group, and fears about fathering a first child in middle age. Cutting edge stuff. And then there's plenty of generic fear of terrorism to stir the pot.
There are three distinct sections here, and two are propelled by a nonredeemable juvenile brain -- interminable details of childish romances and cowardly behavior. The final section is derivatively grotesque, lazy, and exploitative at best. At worst, it's a disgusting way to co-opt real tragedy to serve half-baked fiction.
Yes, a page turner, but only in a completely skimmable sense. You keep asking yourself, "Where is he going with this?" And when he gets there, you're completely disgusted by the way he feels confident enough to take on a moment that is so personal, so emotionally charged by history, to think that his narrative skills can imbue his own meaning upon it. I'll admit a bias about this subject matter, but it simply seems ghoulish and far too simple -- and it's so ham-handed, you see it coming early but hope it's not going to really get there. But it does.
on March 20, 2014
I started laughing at the end of the first paragraph of this novel and never stopped, even during the final pages in which all is illuminated, because it's funny. The meanderings of Kevin Quinn's mind, keeping pace with his body as he alternates between heedless and obsessive semi-stalking and heat-oppressed delirium, are a delight. He riffs sex off of music off of death off of academia and brings it all back around again, over and over, never missing a note.
I'm not going to summarize the plot, because a number of other reviewers have already done that well. The end, after a brilliant buildup, is one that you never saw coming until you think back and realize that it was always coming, in a thousand of Kevin's half-thoughts and sweaty semi-phobias and all-too-human fears and prejudices.
After I finished the book, I looked up the reviews in the NYT. Janet Maslin raved about it, but Claire Messud was critical. Ironically, the last review I wrote was about Messud's latest book, which was amateurish and dreadful. I thought, "No wonder you write so badly--you can't read."
Some reviews have criticized Kevin's arrested development, arguing that there is nothing redeeming about him, but every moment in Kevin's day is about a redemption toward which he drags himself reluctantly but nostalgically, through heat and light which rise off of the page. There were moments when I wanted to take this slightly vain, slightly immature, slightly selfish man by the hand and say, "Let's just sit down for a second, over there, IN THE SHADE." I can't remember the last time that I knew exactly and so clearly how a character felt at every moment, and felt it with him.
A great book.
on April 24, 2011
Let me tell you this: pages 217 and beyond will all be worth the reading journey, not that the journey itself won't be worth it because I can assure you you will not soon forget Kevin Quinn. But when you get to page 217, Kevin has had to contend with some self-imposed issues that require the purchase of some new clothes. And there in the department store restroom, you will come to terms with Kevin's issues about what it would be like for a fifty-year-old man to father a child by a woman decades younger--Kevin only likes much younger women. Of course! Be prepared to laugh a lot.
But let's start at the beginning, right? Yes! Kevin Quinn is on board a plane, flying from Ann Arbor to Austin, Texas, on a day when half a globe away, in Glasgow, another Kevin has strapped a bomb onto himself and managed to slaughter a bunch of people. And our Kevin--oh, yes, we as readers soon own Kevin Quinn--is let's say more than slightly obsessed with that act of terrorism. The entire trip worth of it, page after page after wonderful prose-filled page, sitting next to none other than the ideal woman, young and Asian, or slightly Asian, known only to him as Miss Joy Luck. You'll find out why.
I enjoy reading about these types of American heterosexual men: the Updike Rabbit types, the John Barth Henderson types, the Russell Banks males, the Jonathan Franzen men, clueless beings caught up in their own webs of pettiness and disillusionment, making one stupid decision after another.