By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 11, 2015
Next, a 2010 novel by James Hynes, conveys the thoughts and experiences of a middle-aged man over the course of a brief trip to Austin, Texas.
The book’s main character is Kevin Quinn, an academic editor at the University of Michigan who has spent his entire adulthood living and working in Ann Arbor. He’s traveled to Texas for a job interview with an outfit called Hemphill Associates. The company’s offer to pay for plane tickets for the journey surprised Kevin so much that he neglected to ask for a hotel, so Kevin is taking a day trip without any luggage whatsoever. During the few hours that he spends in the state capital, this man will spend a great deal of time reminiscing about his life and fretting about his future.
Many of Kevin’s musings revolve around women he has known. He’s dating a younger woman named Stella, who is also a tenant in his house. He met Stella a few years ago, after Beth, his longtime girlfriend, got pregnant by another man and moved out to have the family that Kevin would never agree to start with her.
When, sitting in a coffee shop with four hours to kill before his scheduled interview, Kevin sees the beautiful young woman who sat next to him on the flight down to Austin, he impulsively leaves the shop and begins trailing her. This woman, whom he initially knows only as Joy Luck (because she intently read Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club throughout the entire plane ride) becomes a sort of Beatrice to Kevin’s Dante for the early part of his journey through Austin.
Every time the woman looks his way, he’s torn between fearing that she’ll recognize him and fearing that she won’t:
What am I doing? thinks Kevin, treading on his own shadow. Who am I kidding? What am I going to do, strike up a conversation with her like some drunken Shriner? Hey honey, I’m only in town for the day, what’s a fella do for fun in this burg, har har har? The very thought shrivels him, but he keeps walking. Cars pour west down Sixth toward the bright, hazy hills in the distance, but there’s no other foot traffic, only Joy Luck and him. Get a grip, he thinks, she’s twenty-five years younger, maybe even thirty. But so what? The first day he met Stella, in Expresso Royale, she told him she was twenty-nine. The fact that she lied about her age — he knows because after she moved into his rental apartment downstairs and started spending most of her nights upstairs with him, he snuck a peek at her driver’s license and found out she was actually thirty-five — is sort of beside the point. Fact is, the look on Beth’s face when he told her how old his new lover was — it was worth all the grief he knew she’d give him. Who cares if Stella’s actually five, six years older?
From there, Kevin plunges into a recollection of that first coffee shop encounter. They were waiting in line on a bright spring morning when Stella struck up a conversation about the music that was playing in the store. Stella, who was obviously flirting, and who claimed to be 29, and who spunkily asked, “Can’t a girl like the old bands?,” incorrectly named the band that recorded “Brown Sugar.”
“It’s not the Black Crowes,” he murmured, inclining his head toward hers. “It’s the Rolling Stones.” Then he added, “The Black Crowes of their day,” never sure how much a young person would know of the popular music of the Pleistocene. “Sort of.”
“I know that,” said the young woman, and she unlaced the long fingers of one hand from the grip of her briefcase, her nails a deep but not unprofessional shade of red, and playfully rapped his arm with her knuckles. “How old are you?”
Good question, thinks Kevin, trotting through the Texas heat after a girl who’s even younger than Stella, a girl whose father he is old enough to be. Up ahead Joy Luck dashes on tiptoe across Sixth Street, the duffel bouncing heavily on her shoulder, her arm thrown out for balance, her sandals flapping loose of her heels. A block behind her Kevin crosses, too.
The novel alternates between past and present throughout, as Kevin’s mind ricochets from the things he sees and the people he meets to sights and sounds of the past. Most of the memories are from Kevin’s 20s — in particular, from a summer a few years after Kevin’s college graduation. That was back when he’d fallen in love with someone identified only as the Philosopher’s Daughter while simultaneously enjoying a loveless but physically passionate affair with a woman named Lynda.
In the present, as Kevin haplessly follows “Joy Luck,” he nostalgically recalls how Ann Arbor was back in the good old days when national chains hadn’t yet replaced the town’s local businesses; mentally decries the relentless Austin heat; and debates what exactly he’s doing on this trip. Kevin hasn’t told Stella — hasn’t told anyone — that he’s taken this day trip. He’s dissatisfied with his life, but he doesn’t really want to move to Austin, either.
Next is divided into three sections, each of which harbors a dark twist of its own. There’s an injury, a bracing heart-to-heart conversation with a stranger and an extremely unconventional job interview. And overshadowing the entire day is a recent spate of terrorist attacks in Europe. In the book’s very first sentence, in fact, Kevin frets about a rogue terrorist firing an anti-aircraft missile at his plane as it descends into Austin.
Kevin is, in many ways, just an average middle-aged white American guy — someone who’s generally benefited from society’s structural biases but still finds his spirit yearning for an indefinable je ne sais quois. He fears that the Philosopher’s Daughter, oh so many years ago, was right when she expressed doubts about Kevin’s ability to harbor true tenderness and true passion.
But Kevin is also secretly proud of his independence, and of his success with younger women such as Stella, which enable him to continue to pose as a hip young guy even though his college years are three decades behind him.
Kevin’s generation is a little older than mine (much like the teenage Rubins in The Lost Legends of New Jersey), but I’m of an age where I can identify with Kevin’s concerns and qualms. Although he can be an annoying companion at times, Hynes is skilled at evoking the daily hassles and inconveniences that face Modern Cubicle Man and Woman. I thoroughly enjoyed Next, and I expect that I’ll be reading other books by Hynes.