Wednesday, April 7, 2010

James Hynes confronts terrorism head-on

I read a review of James Hynes’ most recent novel and thought it sounded intriguing. It is intriguing, maddening, moving, and more.


James Hynes’ Next (320 pages, Reagan Arthur Books, $23.99) is a study in contradictions. The hero, Kevin Quinn, is a paranoid obsessive. He panics as his plane takes off from Detroit in the morning—he looks for trails of missile smoke as the plane gains altitude—and he virtually undresses (mentally, I mean) every woman he meets in this odd and oddly apocalyptic day.

Kevin is sneaking away from his quasi-academic job—he works as an in-house editor for the Asian Studies Department at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor—in order to meet with a private firm of off-site editors in Austin, Texas, who have a good job available in his field. Needless to say, he is nervous about moving from the non-profit to the for-profit sector, and he is not even sure whether he wants to move at all. He has a girlfriend in Ann Arbor, called Stella; and even though he is not sure whether he loves Stella, who is much younger than the fifty-year old Kevin, he is sure that he is flattered by her attention and he has to admit to himself that he really does enjoy spending time with her.

That does not stop him from chatting up an elegant young Asian woman on the plane and even fantasizing about what might be possible either sexually or in terms of a relationship with her. Once we know Kevin better, we realize that he does this with almost every woman he sees. He does it with dozens in the course of the move, but there are three that take his attention for a considerable length of time. One is the girl from the plane, who is called Kitty, and whom he ends up trailing around a corner of Austin. This ends badly, as one might imagine it might, but along comes a Latina doctor, who helps him out of a tough situation and takes him to lunch. She is an intriguing character, and Kevin is deeply attracted to her muscular frame—she’s in amazing shape—but he also likes her and wishes he could spend longer with her than just these few hours.

While these meetings are going on—Kevin had arrived much earlier for his interview than he needed to—Kevin also runs mentally through the various relationships he has had. There is Beth, with whom he was partnered for eight years, until her desire for a child led her to leave him in frustration and anger. He loved Beth deeply, and he has never quite gotten over her leaving, but he also knows that he could not have been the husband she really wanted. There are one or two other key loves, brought up in semi-erotic ways as he makes his way around steamy Austin. And he also thinks at length about Stella. All his doubt about her, his love for her, his confusion about whether or not he wants a child—he has found a pregnancy test in the trash—and his sense of her smile, her personality, her energy propel him through his day in Austin, which is, oddly enough, premised on the assumption that he might leave her to move to Texas.

And then there is one more woman, whom he meets at Starbuck’s while figuring out what to do in his time before the interview, and he meets her again near the end of the novel. In some ways, she comes to mean more to him than anyone.
Hynes' leads Kevin to an apocalyptic closing, but it is a suitable close to this wildly obsessive tale. It makes such compelling reading, in part because Kevin is such a one-note walking erection. But it is compelling too because out of this obsession comes something deeply vulnerable and terribly moving.

There is beautiful writing here, and we might have the feeling that no one has taken us quite where Hynes takes us at the end of this novel. “Yet another 9/11 tale,” we might think when we start this novel, but I guarantee you it is unlike any other novel that has confronted the issue of terrorism.

James Hynes

Pick it up at Powell's, Amazon, or Vroman's.

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