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Friday, March 19, 2010


I really enjoyed the first two-thirds of this book.  It's too bad the story did a horrible 180 for the last third that completely ruined my enjoyment.  If not for that I would have definitely given it 4 if not 5 stars.  But 3 is the best I can do and that's being generous.

In those first two-thirds this seemed like one of those books that seemed so closely tailored to me I thought the author must know me--if not actually then through some kind of telepathy.  The story focuses on Kevin Quinn, a Michigander (like me!) who was raised in Royal Oak in suburban Detroit.  Later he went to Ann Arbor to the University of Michigan, where he cycled through several majors before earning a worthless General Studies degree that earned him a job as an editor at the university's Center of Asian Studies.

The main problem is Kevin's life is that he's drawn to women much younger than himself.  While Kevin is 50, all the women he's been with are significantly younger.  His current girlfriend Stella is 35 but tries to pass herself off as 29.  It's this attraction to younger women that lands Kevin in trouble on a spur-of-the-moment trip to Austin, Texas for a job interview.  Sitting next to him is a girl named Kelly who is half his age, if not younger.  But Kelly reminds Kevin of Lynda, the fling of his youth, the memories of which call to him like a siren's song.

When Kevin sees Kelly again outside a Starbucks in Austin, he finds himself following her around the city.  This is only the first act of the story.  The second focuses more on Kevin and a Latina doctor who aids him in a moment of need.  Kevin also evaluates his relationships to Stella, Lynda, his father, a girl he met before Linda referred to as The Philosopher's Daughter, and a woman he spent a number of years with named Beth.

This story could have been turgid and boring, but Hynes's writing is witty and insightful enough to keep things humming along.  It helped for me that most of his observations about Michigan and Midwesterners were bang on the money.  (The only thing I'd take issue with is that the author kept referring to Detroit's main airport as "Detroit Metro."  That's fine if you're an out-of-towner but there's no way Kevin would think of it as "Detroit Metro" any more than someone from Chicago would think "Chicago O'Hare" or "Chicago Midway."  Usually we refer to it simply as "Metro" or "Metro Airport."  Adding the "Detroit" seemed like a bit of authorial intrusion to indicate to the reader that it's located in Detroit--actually, in Romulus but let's not quibble.)  The only significant issue I'd had was I would have suggested the author scale back the current pop culture references.  Those sound nice in the moment and I got most of them, but in 5-10 years references to "Sex in the City," "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," "Battlestar Galactica," "Lord of the Rings," and so forth are going to seem moldy.  Still, for me the first two-thirds then were a breeze to read and very enjoyable.  The way Hynes delved so deeply and entertainingly into Kevin's inner life brought to mind Richard Ford's "Independence Day" and especially David Gates' "Jernigan."

It's such a shame then that after creating this wonderful portrait of a character, Hynes decides to throw his story away and turn it into "The Towering Inferno."  (Slight spoiler.)  It just seems lazy to me, like when an excellent thriller movie devolves into a series of car chases and kung-fu fights at the end and you just wonder why the filmmakers felt they needed to dumb down the product at the end for the popcorn crowd.  Though the best example might be "Huckleberry Finn" where Twain/Clemens had such a great story going with Huck and Jim and then threw it all away by inserting Tom Sawyer and his shenanigans into the end.

In the same way I feel betrayed here.  I followed Kevin this far, I wasn't going to stop reading just because there wasn't enough "plot" to the story.  More to the point, I liked Kevin and I wanted to see him work things out--or not.  Instead, the book takes a shortcut that left me unsatisfied and angry.  To me it just seems like Hynes lacked the courage to let the story unfold naturally, so instead he fell back on a deux ex machina device.  It's quite a wasted opportunity.

I'd definitely recommend reading the first two-thirds of the book.  Once you get to Part 3 though you might want to stop reading.

That is all.

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