When I heard James Hynes had a new book coming out I become as excited as when I'd heard a movie of Lord of the Rings was in the works. Very.
I am a fan of Hynes' The Lecturer's Tale, Publish and Perish and Kings of Infinite Space, three contemporary works of fiction that live in the space between pop and literature--a good place. Hynes' first book, a mystery of sorts set in Ireland, The Wild Colonial Boy, lost me after a few chapters. I'm being honest here.
My fickle heart was won in the beginning of Next (Little Brown and Co.), before being lost. The narrator, Kevin, is on a plane from Ann Arbor to Austin for a job interview. With a wink at Joyce's Ulysses, the book is stream-of-Kevin's-consciousness, from take-off to its ending about six hours later.
Thoughts stream into a former co-worker named McNulty from a record store in the late 70s. McNulty was an old-style doper-philosopher-slacker, working in a shop where a customer could go to a listening booth to hear five versions of a Shostakovich symphony (or the B-52s). Oh, I remember those stores. The McNulty/listening booths, fine with details, won me. Who knows where McNulty is these days--Kevin doesn't, though those memories are rich with humor.
And what happened to all the small bookstores, cafes, records stores which those of us who can remember the 70s miss? Well, we all know what happened. Big chain stores.
Part of Kevin's stream-of-consciousness is a lament for what's lost as in crushed by industry, and what is lost in our sense of safety, crushed by violent industry of airplanes flying into buildings and suicide bombers on trains.
However. Most of Kevin's thoughts center on his women. On the ones who got away and the one he is thinking of leaving. I guess Kevin is a healthy American boy, a 50-year old who is unmarried. His thinking take cracks at the cultural literacy of some of his women, which shows Kevin making wrong choices, his contempt, and is also (I am taking the high road), a shot at the country's continued loss of cultural literacy.
Mostly he thinks about his women's flat stomachs, the size of their calves, the tautness of their arms, their sexual charms. Yes, I am told in countless articles and books that men think mostly about sex. True, not true, Kevin is living testament to that theory. Other than McNulty, he has no particular memory of much besides sex and his women. The obligatory family memory (well told, convincing--Hynes is a good writer), but that's it. Regarding a fellow passenger he follows after they land in Austin:
"She's dwindled in the sunlight from a flesh-and-blood girl, with muscles gliding beneath her skin, her apple tattoo winking over her jeans, to an incorporeal, impressionist squiggle that means Girl, a couple of charcoal lines narrow in the middle and wise at the hips."
Nicely done but after twenty references to her tattoo and hips, well, my interest waned. Actually, I was insulted and bored.
I think about living within a star for eternity, per a passage from Spinoza; of course now about the Gulf; the Freedom Flotilla; unemployment; sex; nieces and nephew; the competitive world of poetry. Kevin thinks about sex and romance. Maybe this is chick lit for men.
By the time I reached page 175 I gave myself permission to skip thirty or so pages to get to the final thirty or so pages. This finale is convincing and much foreshadowed.
James Hynes is a wonderful writer. Next is skillful in many ways but it is not his best book or a book I recommend except to younger men. Hynes' fiction thrives on slightly loser characters encountering the bizarre; no matter how well-drawn or real Kevin is, he is not interesting enough to keep my attention and respect for the entire book.