By Ron Charles
Wednesday, March 24, 2010; C01
By James Hynes
Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown. 308 pp. $23.99
With his weird and wicked academic satires -- "Publish and Perish," "The Lecturer's Tale" -- James Hynes captured the fetid anxiety of university life, but now he's graduated to the pervasive fear that defines our age. In the very first sentence of this new novel, Kevin Quinn works himself into a panic by imagining a Stinger missile hitting his plane as he lands in Austin. "Am I the only one who worries about stuff like this?" Kevin wonders. "Or does everybody, these days?" That missile doesn't strike, of course -- it's just nerves -- but what follows is the most original and poignant story I've read about living under the shadow of random acts of terror.
"Next" shouldn't work at all, let alone succeed as it does. It's a plotless, desultory novel about a commitment-phobic man walking along the hot streets of Austin as he waits for a job interview. Only two months have passed since the publication of another novel about a wandering man: Joshua Ferris's dreary, though elegantly written "Unnamed," but "Next" is a more cathartic journey. Hynes knows exactly where he's going with this story, and his compulsive patter is witty and alluring enough to keep us running alongside Kevin. Soon enough, it's obvious that what looks like a lonely guy just marking time is really a man engaged in a moving, brilliantly composed act of introspection.
At 50, Kevin hasn't so much matured as learned how to simulate maturity. He's horny enough to regard every woman he sees as a potential sexual partner, but "his default liberal guilt and his midwestern decency jerk him short like a leash." He associates all the significant moments of his life with particular songs and failed relationships, like some Nick Hornby wannabe. "He's an underachiever in every way he can imagine," Hynes writes, "professionally, personally, financially." Wandering around this strange town, "almost nauseous with melancholy," he considers that he has "no kids, no career, really, no overriding passion in his life, and an ex-girlfriend who at long last heaved him over the side to have children with a [younger] man."
In the fluid riff of cultural commentary, funny quips and rueful memories that constitute most of this novel, we learn that Kevin is running away from his new girlfriend and an editing job he loathes at a university press in Ann Arbor. He knows no one in Texas and has told no one back home that he's here for the interview -- all part of the exciting fantasy of a clean break, the promise of a new beginning. "It's not a real choice so much as it's a choice between two equally risible clichés: Count Your Blessings, or Follow Your Dreams," Hynes writes in a voice that captures Kevin's own ironic derision. "Look it up (\mid-lif kri-ses\ n) and find a line drawing of Kevin Quinn in a sporty little convertible, with his perky young -- well, younger -- girlfriend beside him, her hair loose in the breeze. See MIDDLE-AGED MAN."
This strange story is always on the go, even though its real motion is entirely internal. Instead of preparing for his job interview, Kevin spends the hours before the appointment channeling "his inner nineteen-year-old," stalking a young woman he saw on the plane -- aroused by "the mild thrill of his own shamelessness." He has no idea what he'd say if he actually made contact with her -- "What am I going to do, strike up a conversation with her like some drunken Shriner?" -- but she reminds him of past girlfriends who got away, and that inspires a free association of sexual nostalgia and humiliation, swinging wildly from inane optimism to crushing self-doubt.
All this wandering and middle-aged ogling takes place against a background of fresh terrorist acts in Europe. On the television and radio, reports are still pouring in about a set of coordinated suicide bombings. Hynes weaves these atrocities into the background of Kevin's regrets. It's a dark symphony of gallows humor, the fatalism and self-absorption that run through our distracted lives nowadays. "After the Fall of the Wall and the Fall of the Two Towers and the Fall of Kevin's Fiftieth Birthday," he really has no idea how to live -- how to stop running and shirking and avoiding. "He wishes he were a Republican," Hynes writes, "full of absolute certainty and righteous, tribal wrath."
Believing in nothing, Kevin finds the terrorists' passion as fascinating as it is frightening. But before the story reaches its devastating conclusion, he'll be given a chance to reassess himself. Hang on tight: The novel's mournful overtones rise slowly but firmly in that amazing voice -- jocular and honest, clear-eyed and tragic, always winning. By the time you notice "Next" picking up speed, it's rushing along so fast you'll be completely defenseless when it rips your heart right out.
Ron Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.