Next ~ James Hynes

Coming into this weekend, I needed another book to read since my library holds were lagging (as usual, they’ll all show up at once). I checked a few sites looking for a recommendation, and I saw this book on the Book Balloons site in their top 10. I know these are savvy readers, so I chose this one (available instantly as an e-book). What a great choice. And you know it’s a great choice when the next book I read is another one by the same author. This morning I searched James Hynes’ bibliography and found this one, his first, available at the library. I’ve got it in my hands now, and I’m eager to start it: The Wild Colonial Boy.

Hynes latest novel is a reflective yet extremely funny, extremely readable novel with lots of great sex. A hat trick! As our protagonists flight is coming down in Austin, Texas, Kevin relives one of his current obsessions: a plane being shot down by a missile. He doesn’t like to fly, but has impulsively booked an interview in Austin (he works and lives in Ann Arbor). His ‘seat mate’ on the flight is a young woman of Asian descent who happens to be reading Amy Tan: thus the name he gives her is Joy Luck. They have some light conversation in flight and so when Kevin arrives very early for his interview he has plenty of time to kill. Horny ole Kevin decides to follow Joy Luck around in Austin. Later we find that Joy Luck is returning to her home in Austin from Ann Arbor with the intention of moving there – the opposite move of that which Kevin is contemplating.

Throughout the novel, mostly as he ‘tails’ Joy Luck around Austin, Kevin examines his affairs, which have one thing in common: the older he gets, the younger his lovers become. He’s now in his fifties and in a relationship with Stella, a text-book saleswoman who appears to be around thirty, probably on the north side. He meets her in line at the local coffee shop in Ann Arbor and promptly invites her to dinner at the Mongolian Barbecue (“where he took all his first dates”). She needs an apartment, he has one, and she promptly goes down on him after he offers her the apartment  they’ve just toured. Like I said, there’s plenty of sex and humor here:

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.

In between his (fleeting as it turns out) obsession with Joy Luck and Stella, there’s Lynda (epic sex: “Lynda a la plage. Lynda on the railing”), and the one who he never had and still obsesses about – The Philosophers Daughter. The PD had rejected him by telling him that he lacked “tenderness and passion” so could never love him. That put-down has haunted him to this day – maybe because it has a kernel of truth which he wants to avoid (“love fades, but rage and humiliation endure forever”). Beth is the one he married (now divorced). After living together for some time, she tells him she’s pregnant by another man and wants a divorce. Beth is the one he should have been most compatible with, but they fought a lot, and he wasn’t prepared to have kids. Once, there is a chance meeting when he’s with Stella with his ex at a sort of Whole Foods knock off. They’re at the prepared foods counter (“Charcuterie? Can’t they just say “deli meats” like a normal grocery store?”). Classic. When Beth sees Kevin with Stella

She shot Kevin a look that made him blanch, a look that said (and Kevin ought to know) ‘I want you dead’, and not just dead, but crusted with pecans, stuffed with feta and spinach, and mounted on a platter with an organic apple in his mouth, sliced crosswise for easy service. Then she smiled and caught Stella’s eye.

“Hi,” she said.

Stella blinked and said “Hi” in her professional voice.

Loved the pop music references dropped throughout too. They add flavor and context. In Austin, the lounge called Molotov gives him a sense that he’s losing touch, he’s getting older, that the common ground of his generation is not the common ground of the younger women he lusts after

…they wouldn’t give a shit that he’d seen the Police at Bookie’s on their first American tour [heh-heh. I saw the Police on their first American tour at Boston's Rathskellar]. Or that he once drunkenly yelled, “I wanna have your child!” to Patti Smith in Second Chance and that Patti gave him the finger. Or that once, in the Fleetwood Diner at two in the morning, he sat next to James Osterberg, aka Iggy Pop – a tiny little guy in eyeliner, Ypsilanti’s favorite son  – and that Iggy accepted a steak fry from Kevin’s plate.

On this same theme there’s also a wonderful and insightful reverie about the 15-20 year age difference between he and Stella, and what is means to a relationship.

artifacts that make Kevin suicidally despondent – a recliner, his mother’s cocktail glasses, his father’s golf trophies, his sister’s Partridge Family 45s – are exotic objets d’art to Stella, like African masks or Indonesian batik. Kevin’s depressing Ice Storm boyhood is Stella’s theme park.

Here he’s no-holds barred on Cirque de Soleil. He doesn’t hold back on Blue Man Group either.

…this was what entertainment would have been like if the Soviet Union had won the Cold War, fantastically fit but facelessly interchangeable performers in revealing outfits doing spectacular but meaningless stunts for a mindlessly bedazzled audience

The novel is divided into three parts and I’ll save the third part for the ‘spoilers below’ section.

SPOILERS BELOW

A few weeks ago I had read the wonderful Death of a River Guide. This early Richard Flanagan novel is framed around the conceit of the protagonist drowning, and his life passing before his eyes. So the tale is told by a drowning man. The first two parts of Hynes’ novel are of a man dealing with a crossroads. He’s taking stock of his life, looking for a new job, undecided if he wants his current girl friend to come with him. There are signs that she is trying to get pregnant and he’s unsure of his feelings about this . So he’s reviewing his life as he walks around Austin. Here, in the third section of this three-part novel, the conceit used (at least in the final pages) is of a man falling from the 51st (or is it 52d?) floor of a high-rise. As he falls, his life does flash before his eyes. He sees his self coming to an end and has mixed emotions. As he was waiting for a job interview in Austin, Texas a Stinger missile (or was that a shoulder fired Banana Daiquiri?) has been launched and has ripped the structure apart, and with fire raging, there is no rescue possible. The stinger missile launched at him has been foreshadowed in the earlier parts.

The front pieces of the novel have foretold some such catastrophe with Virginia Woolf quotes, both from her diaries (where VW writes about her “instinct” that turns loud noises into explosions and Mrs. Dalloway (“she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day”). The title itself comes from a line that James Coburn utters in the film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid:

Comes an age in a man’s life when he don’t want to spend time figuring out what comes next.

In Hynes’ novel what comes “next” is the conclusion of a life that has been summed up in the first two parts. And the conclusion can take its place right up there with the haunting images of people jumping from the Twin Towers that has formed the basis of several novels since 9/11. He’s not alone at the end. He’s with a woman (Melody) whom he had ironically met earlier at a Starbucks. It turns out she works in the building, and so they spend their last moments together. Rather than burn up, or die of smoke inhalation, they opt to jump. This is part of the incredible journey of that jump.

His eyes open to the whole Google Maps panorama of Austin turning slowly below them – the ant-busy street below, the buildings thrusting up toward them, the hammered verdigris green of the river, the sun-faded hills studded with red roofs – and for a nanosecond his heart swells with the hope of a miracle, that they will soar like angels, wafting hand in hand to the pavement below to land gently on the balls of their feet like the risen dead before the eyes of breathless office workers and astounded first responders. But it’s not a miracle, it’s not a moment of salvation…

I have to admit that I had hope for some miracle myself – such is the power of the final pages. As he falls, Kevin feels like Wile E. Coyote and imagines Melody (the women he’s falling with) feels like a raptured Angel. The very first line of the novel, a foreshadowing, is  “as the ground rushes up to meet him”. And the very last line?

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.

I only recall a slight lull at some point in the latter pages of the second part. Other than that, this a flawless book, expertly crafted and imagined. It’s not often that a writer combines such humor and thoughtfulness in the same package. Wonderful reading experience.

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