Up in the air
Do we look up at an airplane now the same way we did before September 11, 2001? I would hazard a guess of “no,” and the protagonist of James Hynes’ Next certainly doesn’t. Over the novel’s eight-hour trajectory, Kevin Quinn spends a large amount of time either in a plane, at an airport or watching planes in the air, and his fear of terrorist action is the low-level buzz that hums behind all of his past complaints and future plans. Like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Ian McEwan’s Saturday, Next follows the events of a single day and relies on a subtle interplay of memory, trauma and thought.
Kevin is flying to a job interview in Austin, Texas, in the midst of an international terrorism scare. Frustrated by his current relationship and tired of his dead-end job, he dares to make a midlife change. On the flight, he sits next to Kelly, a beautiful young woman; he becomes obsessed, and decides to follow her after their flight lands. Traipsing around Austin’s muggy streets gives Kevin plenty of time to rail against his current condition and ponder previous love affairs and former jobs. Though Kevin’s self-absorption is annoying at times, Hynes’ witty wordplay keeps the book moving along briskly. The novel’s pace shifts into higher gear, however, after a freak accident involving the lovely Kelly, a dog leash and a Hooters dirigible. When a kindly Latina surgeon stops to help Kevin, the reader expects redemption, or at least a happy ending.
But the final third of the book shifts radically in plot and tone as Kevin is thrust into a situation unlike any he has experienced before. The plot, which up to now has been humorous if slightly off-putting, grows more profound, the memories that float to the surface deeper, more revealing. The reader hangs on breathlessly as Kevin’s thoughts swerve from past to present and beyond, reconciling what came before with whatever is to come in a seamless flow. Next may be Hynes’ best book—and one that reveals his gifts as a serious novelist.
Lauren Bufferd writes from Nashville.