Colson Whitehead’s eagerly awaited and triumphantly acclaimed new novel is on one level a multifaceted retelling of the story of John Henry, the black steel-driver who died outracing a machine designed to replace him. On another level it’s the story of a disaffected, middle-aged black journalist on a mission to set a record for junketeering who attends the annual John Henry Days festival. It is also a high-velocity thrill ride through the tunnel where American legend gives way to American pop culture, replete with p. r. flacks, stamp collectors, blues men , and turn-of-the-century song pluggers. John Henry Days is an acrobatic, intellectually dazzling, and laugh-out-loud funny book that will be read and talked about for years to come.
Colson Whitehead's second novel posits a folk antihero for the information age: junketeer and puff-piece-writing man J. Sutter. For his latest assignment, this freelance hack is sent to Talcott, West Virginia, to cover its John Henry Days festival and the unveiling of the United States Postal Service's John Henry stamp. Sutter hasn't devoted much thought to American mythology lately, or to the epic struggle of man vs. machine, or to anything else besides padding his expense account and cadging free drinks. Still, our hero is engaged in a private contest of his own--a kind of junket jag, in which he plans to attend a public relations event every single day. Alas, this journalistic obstacle course threatens to eradicate Sutter's soul, just as the folkloric steam shovel eradicated John Henry's body. Whitehead cuts back and forth between eras and exploits. And what begins as a media-saturated satire soon turns into a jazzy, expansive meditation on man, machine, nature, race, history, myth, and pop culture--in short, on America, as expressed through the story of (who else?) a former slave.
Following on the heels of Whitehead's widely praised debut, The Intuitionist, John Henry Days won't disappoint anyone who delighted in the first book's wonderfully quirky writing or its complex allegories of race. The historical set pieces here dazzle, and the author casts a withering eye on our media-driven culture: "Since the days of Gutenberg, an ambient hype wafted the world, throbbing and palpitating. From time to time, some of that material cooled, forming bodies of dense publicity." Still, these brilliant parts don't necessarily add up to a satisfying whole. Whitehead writes the kind of smart, allusive, highly wrought prose that is impressive sentence by sentence. Over the course of 400 pages, though, it can be somewhat daunting. It's a bit like eating a meal in which each of the seven courses comes topped with hollandaise sauce. Worse, some of the characters' motivations remain abstract, as if the author hovered so far above his creations that their foibles struck him as simple absurdities. In a novel of this caliber, of course, much can be forgiven. But one is eager to see Whitehead quit riffing and make an emotional investment in his characters. The result will be fiction that engages the heart as well as the head. --Mary Park