Next by James Hynes. Reagan Arthur Books, 2010. 320 pages.
In The Lecturer’s Tale, previously reviewed in The Smoky Mountain News, James Hynes offered a withering satire of the academic world, in particular the Machiavellian machinations carried on in a university English literature department. The Lecturer’s Tale rightly received critical accolades from readers and critics.
In Next, Hynes remains somewhat attached to the world of academia — his protagonist, Kevin Quinn, is a middle-aged editor for a university press — but Hynes’s vision has darkened even while the scope of his tale has broadened.
Full of doubts about his life, his failed marriage, his current girlfriend, and his work, Kevin goes to Austin, Texas, to interview for a job that offers him the chance for both a higher salary and a change in his life, which he regards as stagnant. On the plane from Michigan to Texas, Kevin’s seatmate is a beautiful and much younger Oriental woman whom he calls Joy Luck. Kevin passes his time on the flight admiring her and worrying about terrorists shooting down the plane.
Once on the ground, Kevin makes his way to his interview. Having arrived several hours early, he goes to a nearby coffee shop, where he first meets an attractive professional, but then spots Joy Luck walking down the sidewalk. Kevin charges out of the coffee shop, offending the woman with whom he has struck up a conversation over coffee, and follows Joy Luck through the streets of Austin, speculating on his life while he tries to devise ways to reintroduce himself to her.
This is Part One of Next, and most readers will be tempted to put the book down — or toss it against the wall — before finishing this section. Hynes paints Kevin with a realistic brush. He is not a particularly attractive character; he whines about the difficulties of his job, his former marriage, his current lover, who favors fine restaurants and appearances and who is much less introspective than Kevin. Chasing after a woman half his age through the sweltering streets of Austin just hours before a job interview that could change his life makes Kevin appear even more an ass. Even the most exuberant sybarite would think twice before chasing a stranger block after sweat-soaked city block while still expecting to make an appointment that might permanently change his life.
Part Two begins with Kevin entangled in a dog’s leash and taking a spill. He bangs his head, tears his pants, and cuts his knee. To the woman who rescues him, who treats the cut knee, whom he first mentally nicknames Nurse Amazon (he later discovers she is a physician), he now turns his sexual antennae, “admiring her solid, fat-free thighs, the definition of her biceps, the muscles in her throat as she tips back her head.” After some mild verbal snickersnee, the Amazon drops him at a clothing store, where he replaces his stained and torn clothing, and then proceeds to his job interview.
By this point, we have come to understand Kevin. He is, in so many ways, a twenty-first century middle-management Caucasian male: wanting attractive women, yet unattuned to their desires; caught up in a life which seems to him far from the dreams of his youth; troubled by world events, particularly terrorism; aware that others around him—the cabbie who drives him from the airport, the people in the streets of Austin, the terror-laden and fearful reports on the news — reflect the awful demands of a harsh world.
In Part Three of Next, Kevin has just greeted the receptionist on the 52nd floor of the building in which his job interview is to take place when the building is hit by a terrorist attack. Part of the building breaks away; the receptionist to whom Kevin has just spoken goes over the edge and falls to the street below. His worst fears realized, Kevin finds himself in a burning building, clutching, oddly enough, the woman whom he had met earlier that day in the coffee shop, who, as it turns out, is employed there.
To divulge more details at this point would spoil the book for any potential reader. But no harm to the ending of the book will come from noting that it is here, in this last horrific chapter, that Kevin finally focuses on what his life has meant and what has given that life importance. He finds in himself a great tenderness for both his ex-wife and his current lover; he finds in the woman beside him in the wrecked building a peace, a solace, a forgiveness that he has lacked his entire life; he finally understands the meaning of love.
Contemporary literature at its finest is literature that reminds us of what it means to be human. It pricks the flesh, tugs at the heart, twists in the mind; it opens the soul; it acts as a mirror in which we find our very selves reflected. Whether the story involves an alcoholic detective or a Bridget Jones looking for love, it is this resonance within ourselves that makes the story real for us. Describing the bond between reader and writer, E.M. Forster said it best: “Only connect.”
Next is contemporary literature at its finest.