J. Bradford Hipps’ bright and large-souled first novel, “The Adventurist,” is set in the New South of gleaming office towers and tract houses and conference centers. This is where the region’s major cities, he writes, have “begun to except themselves from their soil’s bony history.”
His novel’s hero, Henry Hurt, is a programmer and an executive with a company called Cyber Systems. Henry is a droll and chivalrous if mild fellow who may remind some readers of Binx Bolling, the New Orleans stockbroker who is the protagonist of Walker Percy’s classic novel “The Moviegoer” (1961).
The slight resemblance is intentional. This novel begins with an epigraph from “The Moviegoer” (“Businessmen are our only metaphysicians”), and it shares some of that novel’s buoyant yet searching tone. But Hipps is his own writer, and he’s one to reckon with. He has grace and insight to spare.
“The Adventurist” is that relative rarity, a business novel that’s interested in what people get out of their work lives. Henry is no Babbitt; he is far from smug or vacuous; he is not a dupe. But he is good at what he does and takes pride in it. He is 34 and single and aware of “satisfactions like a thick wallet.”
Henry’s sister, an altruist who lives back home in Minneapolis, is convinced he is made for a higher purpose. He tells her: “The day I hold forth on digital security at a dinner party is the day I quit. What moves me to work is money’s comforts, yes, and also a community of smart, mostly efficient people; the sense of place that a good office gives.”
He’s aware that, in admitting you crave money, “you set yourself up as a satirical creature.” He can live with that, for now, at any rate.
“The Adventurist” is about the small and then the large ways in which Henry’s life begins to fray. Cyber Systems has a bad quarter and may go under. He and other executives are forced to go on a barnstorming tour to drum up new business. His lack of efficiency at romance tortures him. His beloved father is in the early stages of dementia.
Hipps is as adept as a gifted playwright at setting a scene. Important moments in “The Adventurist” occur in airports and snowed-in hotel bars, where the electricity flickers. The author writes about these places with a casual vividness that put me in mind of Walter Kirn’s novel “Up in the Air.”
There are also indelible scenes at a strip club and a NASCAR race. (Both outings bring Henry to something close to despair.) A stolen kiss occurs on a Ferris wheel. At the strip club, the men lined up along the catwalk remind him, bleakly, of Communion-takers at the altar rail. Henry views the NASCAR race as an “imperial spectacle.” He observes how the “bright-painted sponsorships would shame coral fish.”
Hipps’ prose is reliably this crisp. A co-worker has “trouser creases sharp as the prow of a destroyer.” A man throws back his whiskey with “a quick pelican jerk of the neck.” An old man has a mouth that is “pinched in a sort of bitter embouchure, like a trumpeter.”
These kinds of observations are the buttons and clasps of this writer’s attire. The fabric of “The Adventurist” is made from Henry’s search for meaning and for life’s small raptures, what he calls “these little junkets into beauty.”
Throughout the novel Henry fights what he calls “the pall,” a sense of desperation that seeps in at an afternoon’s margins. He wards it off in small ways. (“The remedy is obvious: to the laptop. Metaphysical dislocation is no match for a to-do list.”) He can’t always keep it at bay.
He has given up on television because the final episode of a good series sends a ghostly wind through him. “The program ends, the darkness rises, and the strings play elegy for me, not them,” he says. “There is nothing left but to stab the remote and sit in the awful quiet.” The Midwesterner in Henry longs for a hearth; the electronic one has let him down.
He is aware, at the NASCAR rally, that he does not fit in. Amid the rowdy tailgaters he feels on display, and not in a good way. About how others see him as a figure of derision, he remarks: “No matter how liberal a person’s sentiments, how tolerant and unprejudiced his cardinal humors, he is glad to see the outcast, to know conclusively it is not him.”
There is drama in Henry’s attempts to maintain his equilibrium. There is yet more drama, genuine human stuff, in his awareness that many dozens of lives are in danger if he and the other executives can’t keep Cyber Systems afloat. People have families and mortgages; at least one is in the United States illegally and might get thrown out.
Henry has an outsider’s sense of the South, a sense that keeps his transistors alert. “I am forever being outflanked,” he sadly reports, “by Southern manners.” He envies a certain kind of confident Southern man, about whom he says: “His is a discerning shtick of which the Southerner is king: wicked-sounding but affectionate, droll, imperturbable above all.”
Who is Henry? He turns out to be a fool for love, among other things. He acquires a physical as well as an intellectual crush on a married co-worker. He adores the way that, in conversation, “a heartfelt obscenity, deployed just so, activated her pleasure centers like a neon sign.”
“The Adventurist” activated most of my cranial pleasure centers. It’s a brisk and polished and somehow very American novel. It moves confidently, that is, until it can no longer pretend to do so. It delivers to the reader internal wounds that will fail to clot.
“The Adventurist” by J. Bradford Hipps (276 pages; St. Martin’s Press; $25.99)