Sunday, June 6, 2010

James Hynes' "Next": Book Review

Kevin Quinn will experience, three times the day this novel takes place, the sensation "as the ground rushes up to meet him." How he responds depends on where in Austin, Texas, circumstances place him. Some he's planned for, most he hasn't. For, he wanders, similar to another part-Irish fictional walker in another city a century before on another day the middle of June, lured by the wonder and hubbub of what he sees.

Michigan-born James Hynes, now living in Austin, conveys-- through this fifty-year-old editor working on campus at Ann Arbor-- a placid, romantic, intellectual time-server who's confronted by this glaring, bustling, hot, strange boomtown. Quinn hops a plane for a job interview, in and out the same day, desperate to leave Michigan and his girlfriend. Or, so he thinks. He finds himself drawn to pursue the young Asian American woman next to him on the flight as she threads her way through the streets. In his liberated trek, if only for a few hours before his interview, he leaps by memory back into his past.

Hynes peppers references to Shakespeare, Kafka, and Greek myth, but these add up to few compared to Tolkien, Battlestar Galactica, and South Park. Like many readers of Hynes, I suspect, Quinn's at home with high and low culture both. And low, or middlebrow, seems to be winning. Pringles in a Pringles can, Quinn feels as the plane touches down. He feels hemmed in by the barrage of commodification. Following his muse of the morning into Gaia Market (= Whole Foods), he grouses to himself-- his modus operandi--about "this national, centralized, corporate simalacrum of everything co-opers held dear." Their owners, "the brainy Chomsky readers," knew what was coming. They had no chance as "gentle vegans and pacifists who thought they could wear down corporate hegemony like water on a rock find instead that corporate hegemony has opened wide and is eating them alive, and they get to watch their own death, kicking and screaming like Robert Shaw in Jaws." (101)

This rant, which I enjoyed (I confess being one year younger than the protagonist and of similar temperament), nonetheless gets repeated over hundreds of pages, if against other deserving targets. Hynes, as in his previous novellas collected as Publish and Perish, his campus over-the-top satire The Lecturer's Tale, loves to deflate academic pretensions. He also blends office politics as an ingredient for simmering revenge, as Kings of Infinite Space records in its down-and-out former professor turned Texas cubicle tenant. So, readers who applauded, as I did, his fictional barbs will find many familiar riffs here. Hynes writes for those of us on the fringes of academia, well-educated but feeling underemployed, unappreciated, uneasy, at the up-and-coming Type A's chattering into cellphones as they stroll solo, as well as the sneering, tenured fat-cats. Reduced to marginality as the publishing world withers, he wears himself out. "The only line left to cut in his budget is himself." (44)

Hynes in Next heightens what these earlier works prepared us for: a wish to break out of collegial conformity. He stretches further into what may be a semi-autobiographical account of his Michigan boyhood. Quinn reflects, at great length, upon his own upbringing in Royal Oak. For me, these sections of an "Ice Storm boyhood" slowed the pace. Intentionally, for we understand Quinn's character and how his earlier relationships made him who he is, or whom he resents, this June day. They sustain his modestly displayed but diligently crafted prose, yet they sometimes lacked the energy of the Ann Arbor university interludes and the Austin pursuit of what he will come to recall painfully as his stifled need for "tenderness and passion."

This is where the sun vs. snow, the bleached vs. blanched texture of life as Quinn drops into, brightens the tone. He can't take his eyes off the Latinas who strut about Austin. One boasts "a bust like a figurehead and an ass like two dogs fighting in a sack." (45) Another will prove a Good if ambiguous Samaritan. A third will accompany him into the climactic scene.

Speaking of climaxes, the bawdy, sensual tone of other passages enlivens the moodier, brooding irritation Quinn habitually fights. Hynes opens the novel with a pair of quotes from Virginia Woolf, but stream-of-consciousness via Bloomsday or Bloomsbury has progressed since December 1910. About his current girlfriend, Stella, Quinn muses: "Whatever warnings the Jiminy Cricket in his forebrain might have had about a young woman who was willing to blow her potential landlord on the first date were sluiced away in the patella-rattling rush of pleasure, and by his relief, considering where she was putting her mouth, that she hadn't ordered the bird peppers with her stir-fry." (71)

Such enthusiasm for prose, I always thought, marks Hynes. His Irish "Troubles thriller" début The Wild Colonial Boy would have made a great film adaptation; Next shares its vivid eye. Hynes even succeeds at sex scenes, a notoriously elusive feat. He sums up the feel of an aging body and a restless mind. Quinn blunders and bulls his way after the object of his desire, through chain-store, barrio, or yuppified Austin with a desperation and determination for "his last chance, his escape route from Stella, the last younger woman he'll ever need!" (118) The novel keeps swaying in Joycean fashion from present to past, and this as in Ulysses (oddly absent in the narrator's recollections), does provide languid along with poignant passages. These may distract readers wishing more intensity.

The novel entertains but demands concentration. As a cabbie warns our Everyman, "You need to pay attention, man." (243) Quinn gradually gets sucked into Austin's commotion, "where he has been lured by nostalgia and middle-aged lust into the labyrinth of a strange city, accosted by homeless men, tripped by a dog, condescended to by a surgeon." (157) He wants to rest. However, the energy will build, if again in the concluding section dispersed by reverie. While this for a pay-off needed to be accumulated, the decision by Hynes to disperse much of Quinn's emotion into Proustian excursion may not please all.

This happens in the last section; after snappy send-ups of our sorry state of culture, our lemming-like urges for consumerism, our flailing flops to better ourselves, we come alongside Quinn to his interview. The last fifty pages pulse with adrenaline. It's not only pent-up nervousness about the job Quinn seeks.

Here, Hynes shifts into high gear. I wondered if he could keep up the intensity. I hazard this might have worked as a novella, but the accretions of the previous recollections over two hundred pages here finally add up. Over the course of this memorable day, Quinn will face the truth about what comes next. The book ends with one of the most moving last sentences I've had the pleasure to find.
“And as the ground rushes up to meet him, Kevin Quinn, for the first time in a long time, for the first time in years, and maybe even for the first time in his life, is looking forward to what comes next.”
For tenderness and passion invested in the long if wavering build-up to this payoff, Next finally satisfies the patient reader. (Posted to Amazon US 5-26-10 and featured 6-4-10 at PopMatters)

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