28 May 2011

James Hynes, NEXT: Like a modern man

I had this book all figured out until it took the most unexpected leap -- definitely the most surprising ending of any book I've read so far this year. The ending completely changed my view of the book, and and now I'm forcing myself to review it without giving an inkling as to the nature of that turn, my spoiler tendon twitching all the while (it's on one side of the thumb, did you know). Yet we plunge ahead.

NEXT follows middle-aged academic Kevin Quinn on a day trip to Austin and in somewhat of a moment of crisis: The longtime editor of a small university press, Kevin found a job ad in the back pages of Publishers Weekly on a day when the office politics were getting him down, and, to his shock, was invited to fly down for an interview. At that moment, the private-sector position with corresponding salary bump and new landscape looked like a window into a bright new future, but arriving in Texas, Kevin is not at all sure whether he really wanted all that change. Should he instead stay in Michigan, with its sweet memories of collegiate aimlessness and old flings in the '70s? Should he instead commit to his younger girlfriend Stella, even though she may want children soon and he's undecided? (Adding a wrinkle, he hasn't told Stella about the interview, although sometimes he envisions her in his potential future Texan life.)

When the Believer Book Award [non-spoilery] writeup compared it to MRS. DALLOWAY, they weren't far off; the one day seems to stretch out forever as, hours early for his job interview, Kevin decides to go for a walk in the unfamiliar city, ill attired in his suit, trying to picture himself starting over. The critical distinction is Kevin's preoccupation with what age and circumstance have done to his sex life -- the sex he had, and that which he can expect to have whether he stays or leaves. Before Stella, there was his girlfriend of eleven years, who left him with an "I'm pregnant and it's not yours" (a line that causes him to feel even more ardor toward her "or some Dawkins shit like that" [A+++ Dawkins reference]). Before that, lovers whom he did not love, and the one woman whose rejection continually stings. Kevin regularly self-chastises for these flights of "geriatric priapism" (his words), even, at one point, finding himself in literal danger as a result of his fantasy about a woman on his flight down. A little on the nose, but an entertaining bit of misdirection.

To that point, this book did not entirely live down to its Better Book Titles spoof, although the third such scene sort of lost its effectiveness as a contributor to characterization. NEXT also won the Salon.com Good Sex in Fiction award for a scene that is so much more effective in context, I recommend you not read it now (but I will link to it anyway, ye foolhardy sorts).

A lot of ink has been spilled about this particular aspect of the middle-aged male, and Hynes makes more effort than most of universalizing Kevin's feelings beyond his concerns. Part of his dilemma, after all, is the ungendered feeling as if time had stopped somewhere back in his 20s, and finding himself suddenly past the age of the older employee he used to look up to at the record store where he worked in college. (That man, McNulty, is a supporting character who I would almost read a whole book on, but is probably best served by the tantalizing fragments here.) That sauce of fear and possibility, itemized here as the properties and surprises of Austin, could be served over any number of major life events, and is complemented by the pivot point of the ending which again, I will not spoil, but casts a light over everything.

I picked up this book after its inclusion in the Morning News' Tournament of Books; I am wending my way through those books as you can see at the bottom of this post. In other news, this blog is 6 years old today, making it not even middle-aged but possibly dead in Blog Years. Graphomania is a B.

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