Fifty-year-old Kevin Quinn, a scholarly editor at the University of Michigan Press in Ann Arbor, is visiting Austin for a day to interview with Hemphill Associates for a more lucrative editorial job. From his arrival at the Austin airport at 8:30 a.m. until the abrupt afternoon climax, we never leave Kevin’s mind. Next is an homage to James Joyce’s method in Ulysses, giving us a stream-of-consciousness rendition of Austin as mythical place.
Austin is in many ways Ann Arbor writ large: strongly anchored in academic-liberal politics, in love with its own self-image and like any gorgeous, postmodern city, more than slightly resentful of newcomers. So Kevin, while he harbors thoughts of escaping from Michigan and his girlfriend Stella, is encountering his left-behind problems in magnified form. This irony allows James Hynes to offer trenchant cultural commentary even as we never lose interest in Kevin’s dilemmas as a realistic character.
Our most faddish cities have made a fetish of anxiety. This is reflected in the strategies of surveillance, dominance, exclusion, intolerance and self-satisfaction. Consider our fear of terrorism. Many novelists have taken a stab at the inflated worries of the last decade, but few have taken the anxiety to its absurd conclusion as Hynes does. Without giving away the unexpected ending, suffice it to say that Kevin’s worst fears—from the moment his plane descends over Austin, he wonders if terrorists with Stinger missiles are out to get him—come more than true.
Until then, Kevin spends most of his day pursuing women—the Asian airplane seatmate he calls “Joy Luck,” ; a businesswoman at Starbucks he calls “Yellow Rose”; and Dr. Claudia Barrientos, a thoracic surgeon whom he calls the “Amazon” and who rescues Kevin after his farcical fall at the Lamar Avenue bridge after getting entangled in a dog leash. Kevin continually recalls his failed relationships amid the anxiety of having to make a fuller commitment to Stella. He hasn’t told Stella about the Austin trip. His urge for escape makes him view every little peculiarity of the Austin landscape as intensely exotic.
The novel works because it stands apart from run-of-the-mill recountings of middle-aged white male anxiety. Hynes draws us into sympathy for Kevin despite making it obvious how exaggerated his worries are. What will ultimately happen with Stella? Who cares, when we’re having such a good time laughing at his inadequacies with Joy Luck, the Yellow Rose and the Amazon? Hynes’ language simultaneously inflates and deflates—making the characters stand out against the physical background of Austin. Somehow Austin becomes both exotic and quotidian, and we are invited to deconstruct the city.
Beyond farce and tragedy, Hynes shows, is earnestness without purpose, evidence of which surrounds Kevin. “The gentle vegans and pacifists who thought they could wear down corporate hegemony like water on a rock find instead that corporate hegemony has opened wide and is eating them alive.” Kevin thinks this in connection with Gaia, a supermarket that masquerades as a corporate rebel: “They’ve taken everything that was both special and obnoxious about the Ann Arbor Kevin used to love—the food, the politics and the attitude—and they’ve packaged it, art-directed it, and marketed it to Kevin at three times the price he used to pay at the Packard Food Co-op.”
Kevin thinks of Austin as “riding into another country—a hot, dusty, sun-blanched place with immigration lawyers and bilingual palm readers and corporate billboards in Spanish and leaves that bristle like blades and giant neon cockroaches and palm trees.” Is there objectification here, judgmentalism, unwary exoticism? Of course, and that is the crux of the problem for the modern novelist.
Hynes resolves it with his explosive ending. Kevin is a singular consciousness roaming around the city, making myths as he goes. James Joyce could take it all seriously; Hynes must blow it up because the truth of urban alienation is so simultaneously dull and terroristic that it has defanged fictional strategy.
Anis Shivani is a Houston writer whose debut book is Anatolia and Other Stories.