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by J. Bradford Hipps

THE ADVENTURIST by J. Bradford Hipps

At a software company in a Southern city, one lovesick, whip-smart software engineer has a crisis of confidence—in the tradition of Richard Ford and Walker Percy.

In the anonymous office park of a modern software company, whip-smart software engineer Henry Hurt is a man in the middle: of life, of career, and of self-assessment. Mired in his corporate responsibilities, Henry’s deathless office existence is torpedoed by losing his mother.

Overcome by “the pall,” Henry seeks escape in a quest for love and purpose occasioned by a crisis in his company’s fortunes. Dodging an Iago-like rival, he finds love with a colleague in his department, endangers his bond with his family, and finally confronts the single urgent question of his life.

The Adventurist is about relationships: Henry has complicated ones with his sister, Gretchen, who has stayed at home with their father; his lover Jane, a sleek and efficient mirror image of Henry; and a tantalizing potential girlfriend, Madison, the ultimate free spirit. But his relationship to his corporate and familial responsibilities may change his fortunes even more than the women in his life.

A former programmer, J. Bradford Hipps turned to fiction after a ten-year software career. He received his graduate degree from the University of Houston Creative Writing Program, where he was awarded the Inprint Michener Prize. He lives with his wife and children in Texas.

Praise for The Adventurist:

“Delightfully funny. The self-doubt, the inspired riffs on philosophy and inquiry, please on every single page. This is a carefully wrought report on How We Live Now. I am in awe of its deep intelligence.” —Antonya Nelson, author of Funny Once

“In The Adventurist, Prufrock meets a more abstracted Jake Barnes, if only Jake saw to his own unmanning in the ersatz theater of war that is corporate America. Henry Hurt has let the drama of work stand in for the drama of existence, but when a midlife discontent stirs, Henry seeks love, and therein lies the pathos of this absorbing book. When we realize how death-haunted Henry is, we want to hurry him along to happiness. Hipps makes the path frustrating for his hero and page-turningly captivating for us. The engine powering this highly original philosophical investigation is a prose as rich and lush as it is careful and precise.” —Matthew Thomas, New York Times bestselling author of We Are Not Ourselves

“The epigraph from Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer is well-chosen. Like Binx Bolling, Henry Hurt is an interested and analytic observer fleeing the ever-present specter of despair. ‘Our place in the world may derive from mysterious cosmic programs,’ he essays, ‘but the code is not indecipherable.’ The Adventurist isn’t so much a novel of corporate America as that of a man trying to live in hope and wonder, despite all of our natural losses.” —Stewart O’Nan, author of Emily, Alone and West of Sunset

Publishers Weekly Review:

Hipps’s debut novel peels back the layers of one man’s seemingly monotonous life to reveal the deeply felt desire beneath, and the consequences of embracing one’s innate thirst for adventure. Henry Hurt is a software engineer at a corporation in an unnamed city in the American South. His mother died a year ago, he’s nursing an attraction to a married co-worker, and the company for which he works is struggling to turn a profit. To break through his overwhelming angst—or “the pall,” as he calls it—Hurt decides to take his life circumstances in his own hands, more doggedly pursuing both purpose and fulfillment in his work and love. But in so doing, he endangers his career and relationships, forcing him to question what can truly bring him contentment and meaning. Hurt is a fascinating, if at times frustrating, protagonist; his is a middling existence that obscures an existential dread. He’s self-aware and observant, the perfect narrator for a story that feels like the slow-motion collapse of a man who’s already on the edge when the reader meets him. But rather than leaving him to wallow, the novel ends on a sense of hope predicated on the potential in a clean break and a fresh start. Deeply human, at times funny, and laced throughout with reflection on the crushing weight of the familiar, this novel is an engaging and nuanced exploration of life.

Kirkus Starred Review:

A brilliant, introspective, socially awkward software engineer navigates corporate and personal challenges.

Hipps’ classy debut novel bears an epigraph from The Moviegoer—“Businessmen are our only metaphysicians”—and earns comparison to Walker Percy’s classic in its exploration of their shared premise. Here the businessman is Henry Hurt, head of the tech department at a firm called Cyber Systems, located in an office tower in an unnamed Southern city. Though he loves his job and is exceedingly good at it, Henry doesn’t actually give a damn about Internet security software: “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.” This sense of place has become all the more essential since the death less than a year ago of Henry’s mother, back in Minnesota where he was raised and where he ends up several times on business trips in the course of the story. There, he visits his failing father and younger sister, Gretchen, the closest person in his life. Rocked by his loss at a nearly preconscious level, Henry pours his psychic energies into the “adventures” of the title, one being the need to help save his company from a massive shortfall in sales; the other, a similarly massive crush on a married co-worker. The writing is just about perfect: incisive, eloquent, philosophical, and witty by turns, whether describing a NASCAR race, a hotel lobby, a corporate meeting, the comportment of the slick, devious, hard-drinking sales manager Henry works with, or—most profoundly—what it is like to lose one’s mother. “What were you doing in her closet?” Gretchen asks. “You know perfectly well,” Henry replies. “Yes,” she says. He explains to the reader: “I wanted to have a look at her bedroom slippers. The terry cloth inside is worn to a dark shine. They seemed among the most unlikely things in the world.” Like Richard Ford, Hipps finds illumination about the meaning of life everywhere he looks.

The arrival of a top-notch talent.


Review: In ‘The Adventurist,’ an Executive’s Search for Meaning and Small Raptures


J. Bradford Hipps’s 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 Mr. 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.

Mr. 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.”

Mr. Hipps’s 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 and almost desire to hoot, 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.