March 2010

Michael Schaub

fiction

Next by James Hynes

"Life goes out of its way to single you out," writes James Hynes in Next, and wouldn't it be nice to pretend that wasn't true? Next is a post-9/11 novel (though they all are, I guess); it is infused with terror, taking place shortly after a (fictional) wave of terrorist attacks has paralyzed Europe. It starts with a man on an airplane, still eyeing his fellow passengers warily, wondering whether a bomb or a surface-to-air missile could still take them all down, out of the sky, crashing into a field or onto the tarmac of the Austin, Texas, airport. He is afraid and he is thinking of himself, not necessarily because he's selfish (although he probably is), but because everybody is in this alone. We all remember members of Congress joining hands and singing patriotic hymns; we all remember "Let's roll" and "We are all Americans." It got us through the month, but not the decade -- misery hates company, and so does fear, and all of us -- every single one of us -- gets reminded every day, with every tragedy or potential tragedy, that we are alone and we will be singled out. Such is life. So it goes.

The man on the airplane is Kevin Quinn, the 50-year-old protagonist and hero/antihero of Next, Hynes's fifth, and best, book. Quinn is an editor working for a state university in Ann Arbor, Michigan -- liberal, polite, self-absorbed to a remarkable degree. He's taken a flight, secretly, to Austin for a job interview -- he's not quite sure what the job is, but has grown tired of his life in Ann Arbor, bored with his well-meaning but vapid girlfriend. The novel starts as the plane descends (it doesn't crash), and ends several hours later. It's one fraction of a day, and at first, it's not even a particularly remarkable day -- Quinn clumsily tries to flirt with a young woman, takes a cab downtown, visits a coffee shop, another coffee shop, gets tripped by a dog, visits a supermarket, a Mexican restaurant, a department store. He reminisces on ex-girlfriends, on his past work as a record store clerk, on memorable blowjobs from young women. Quinn spends much of the novel, if not most of it, obsessively thinking about women -- not his own girlfriend, with whom he's grown bored and kind of annoyed, but the young woman who sits next to him on his flight, and to a lesser degree, a kind but distracted surgeon he meets after sustaining a slight injury brought about by an unruly dog.

It's true that few people these days are complaining about the dearth of American fiction about middle-aged white men who are obsessed with sex -- that's not an unfair way to describe Kevin Quinn, and given the swath that Updike, Roth and Mailer have cut through contemporary American literature, not exactly an unfair observation. But it would be a shame, and an extreme rookie mistake, to dismiss Hynes's novel as another navel-gazing (well, maybe not "navel") story about a white dude who thinks about doing things with younger women. For one thing, with Next, Hynes has proved that he doesn't take a back seat to any of those three. For another, the character of Kevin Quinn is no Rabbit Angstrom, no -- thank God -- Alexander Portnoy. Quinn contemplates cheating on his girlfriend with pretty much every woman he encounters in the book -- he even seems to regard the woman on the sign of a Mexican restaurant with some concealed degree of prurient interest -- but he doesn't evince the matter-of-fact uncaring of an Updike character or the fear of retribution of a Roth stand-in. It's more of a variegated confusion; a mix of sadness, excitement, and regret in advance.

In large part, it's a book about a guy obsessed with getting laid. And somewhere, somehow, in this narrative -- barely over 300 pages, barely over eight hours in time -- Hynes crafts the most significant and most profound fictional account of post-9/11 American fear, sadness and terror that the nation has produced so far.

Hynes makes a connection familiar to -- for example -- those of us who were raised Catholic: sex and terror are sometimes, if not most of the time, inextricable. And so when Kevin isn't thinking of memorable sexual encounters from his past, he's glancing nervously at airplanes in the sky over downtown Austin:

No, it's a jet, coming out from behind the tower, climbing from Austin's airport over the city so steeply and slowly it looks as if it's winching itself into the sky... And though Kevin's pulse has slowed, the still surprising and indelible conjunction of two formerly unrelated compound nouns -- airplane, skyscraper -- makes his stomach drop. What's worse is that he can't even hear the jet yet, and its silence as it crawls glittering against the bleached sky makes the sight even creepier. And he can't help thinking again of shoulder-fired missiles; from where he's standing at the center of the park he could bring down this plane... Stinger or no Stinger, jihadist or no jihadist, the plane looks as if it's barely going to make it, and Kevin expects it any moment to stall and slide sickeningly backward, then tumble wing over wing straight down into the city below, hitting the earth with an echoing boom and a roiling cloud of black smoke.
Kevin is thinking of the events of the previous days, when terrorists claiming allegiance to Islam set off bombs in six cities in Europe, and everyone was reminded, once again, of the images of 9/11. The planes disappearing into the towers. The twisted metal and piles of rubble. The Falling Man.

Hynes, of course, isn't the first author to tackle this kind of theme. Others have made noble, but ultimately imperfect efforts -- Jonathan Safran Foer with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Don DeLillo with Falling Man, Ian McEwan with Saturday. And while there have been excellent works of fiction to address 9/11 (Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children, Philip Roth's Everyman), none have done so as brutally and viscerally as Hynes does here.

It's inevitable that a lot of attention is going to be paid to the last fifty pages of this book. I can't go into it here, but not because it would constitute a spoiler, but because the shock of what ends up happening wouldn't make sense without having been through the complicated trip that Hynes sets up in the first parts of the book. It's something more than a punch to the solar plexus, something more than an utter shock. And what's most surprising about it is that it's earned. It's difficult to imagine another writer who could do what Hynes does here, and pull it off; who could make the connections that he does, could draw the reader in as completely as he does. It's unforgettable, and in its subject matter and its audacity, unprecedented in the American literature of the past decade. It defies you to consider it intellectually; it draws you in as a person. In literature, that is, unfortunately, extremely rare.

But Hynes is a rare writer. He is brilliant and humane, and he's created a novel that's as involving as it is dark, as compassionate as it is sad. It's a shocking, original masterpiece, and it is deeply, painfully American, in every sense of the word -- whatever that word has come to mean. Next is the kind of novel that leaves you reeling, almost speechless, frightened, scared to consider what it all means. Afraid. Singled out. American -- like we all were that day, like maybe we all will be, forever, always.

Next by James Hynes
Reagan Arthur Books
ISBN: 0316051926
320 Pages