NEXT by James Hynes

Book Quote:

“It’s not his fault that sorrow overwhelms him, that’s just middle age, buddy, everybody regrets something. He and Beth were together for thirteen years, and that’s a lot of emotional momentum, a runaway freight train rolling downhill, nothing but tanker cars full of toxic waste and high explosives, and sometimes he feels like he’s tied to the fucking track. ”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (JUL 3, 2010)

A few weeks ago on NPR, there was a discussion: “What Does it Take For You to Give up on a Book?” Reading the novel Next reminds me of that discussion because while most of the novel is good, it is the last 50 or so pages that is especially gripping reading. If, as some readers on that NPR show admitted, you put down the book prematurely you’d miss it. So it’s best to work this one through.

As Next opens, 50-year-old Kevin Quinn is on board a plane to Austin, Texas. He has a run-of-the-mill job at the Publications Program for the Center for Asian Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. His personal life is also on unsure footing. After a break-up with Beth who he was with for 13 years, Kevin is in a tentative relationship with a younger woman, Stella. But midlife angst begs him to leave it all behind, to reboot. So it is that he follows a job listing all the way to Austin. Stella, who is herself working in Chicago, doesn’t know any of this yet.

As Kevin boards the plane, he is plagued by anxiety—there has been a terrorist attack somewhere in the world and he assumes it is only a matter of time before the terrorists hit again, this time on American soil.

Once on ground in Austin, these general anxieties about terror take a backseat to his general laments about where life is headed. While he has had many sexual encounters, he is unhappy and rootless. Significant sections of the novel involve Kevin recounting his past relationships and their subsequent disintegration. One particular stinging indictment was rendered by a woman known as the Philosopher’s Daughter. She told Kevin that he lacked tenderness and passion—a statement that seems to have left a deep scar on his psyche. “Even if it wasn’t true when she told me, it’s been true ever since because she told me,” Kevin says.

On the plane from Ann Arbor, Kevin runs into an Asian woman whom he is immediately attracted to. As luck would have it, while Kevin is whiling away his time at a coffee shop, waiting for the interview, he spots the same woman on the street. Guided by some sort of sexual attraction, he follows “Joy Luck” (he names her that after the book she reads on the plane) all around the city, at a safe distance. This meaningless pursuit forms the backdrop against which Kevin lays bare his life’s narrative.

Tucked into this narrative are some wonderful descriptions and funny send-ups. Hynes describes an airport as “only an island in an archipelago nation of glassed-in atolls where everybody speaks a sort of English and lives off warm cinnamon buns and day-old turkey sandwiches.” There is even a spot-on description of a food store called Gaia, which sounds very much like Whole Foods.

Next is set over the course of a single day—from the time that Kevin boards the airplane to the day’s end when he shows up for his interview. Digressions and flashbacks aside, to create a novel out of just one day’s events, is difficult. Unfortunately Next suffers from the problem of cataloging too much detail from the smallest of events. Here is an example: “Kevin pauses to slug down the rest of his tea in one long, wobbling gulp. By now it’s as warm as his sweating palm, it’s like drinking some bodily fluid of his own, and as Joy Luck sways downhill toward the river, he tosses the empty cup in a trash can and plods after her.”

As for that famous ending, it’s extremely well done and hits home precisely because its tone and urgency is so different from what has come before.

The problem with the novel is that Kevin is a character who can start to grate on one’s nerves. He refuses to grow up, to confront his anxieties, to make something meaningful out of his life. He is 50 and if indeed, as some have suggested, he is supposed to be Everyman at 50, it’s a very depressing thought. Endless self-absorption is tiring especially when presented in a novel.

The best part about Next is that it is one of the few novels that truly reflects what it is like to live our lives in this, our American landscape. The silent vein of terror that infects everything, the dullness that permeates lives—the subtlest of these observations are brilliantly captured by Hynes.

When Kevin boards the plane and likens the aircraft to “A Pringles can with wings packed full of defenseless Pringles,” you can totally see the analogy working. Kevin’s fears may be extreme but given our generalized anxieties and collective malaise it isn’t too much of a stretch to see where he’s coming from.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 59 readers
PUBLISHER: Reagan Arthur Books; 1 edition (March 9, 2010)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Speaking of airports:

Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles

And another book on the times we live in:

The Unknown Knowns by Jeffrey Rotter


July 3, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, Humorous

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