John Henry Days
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John Henry Days

3.64 of 5 stars 3.64  ·  rating details  ·  1,183 ratings  ·  114 reviews
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 Henr...more
Paperback, 385 pages
Published May 14th 2002 by Anchor (first published 2001)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 2,429)
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Craig
I am befuddled by these reviews. I have tried to read The Intuitionist 4 times; APEX is a riff on all the good in John Henry Days; Sag Harbor worked better as a short story. But John Henry Days? This is about my 11th time reading it, this time in prep for teaching it again for the first time in almost 10 years. I'm basing the star rating (really a 3 1/2) on this read of it, which for me has lost a little of the magic since a) I know what's going to happen and b) I've poured over every line a 100...more
Chris
I really enjoyed this book, though it is definitely the weakest of Whitehead's three novels. Of course, "The Intuitionist" and "Apex Hides the Hurt" were so brilliant that most novels are weaker than them. "John Henry" also suffers from sophomore over-reaching; Whitehead is clever to the point of genius. but that is actually the books failing, as it is often clever without restraint. The lines "So much depends upon a red pickup truck, filled with crackers," and "a runway model dares to eat a pea...more
Roy
John Henry Days is written in an interesting narrative style. It shows us events through the lens of multiple characters, some repeatedly visited, others glimpsed just once or twice. A man named J. Sutter is the one most frequently observed, so I suppose he is technically the main character. But the true MC is a particular weekend in a particular town where an event possibly took place many years earlier, featuring a person who possibly existed. The event was a man defeating a machine at the fea...more
Wes Freeman
Some shit to make you quit your job. Every possible look at John Henry's race against a steam drill as model for modern work ethic (modern, at least, circa-late 1990s, early 2000s, before economy receded). For those out there who aren't happy to have a job, who are still asking why am I doing this pointless thing every day just for $, step between these pages and take a load off. Author feels you. He feels heaps other stuff, too; book is chock full of Eustachian tube-clearing funny jokes and spo...more
Deb Oestreicher
I confess to being awed by Colson Whitehead. This novel is just astonishing. I am pretty sure my mouth dropped open at several points. A sort of fantasia around the fictional release of a commemorative stamp honoring the folk hero John Henry, the book convincingly imagines a wide range of American lives--all the people associated with the festivities planned to launch the new stamp, including journalists, publicists, a small town's officials and citizens, assorted guests (such as a stamp collect...more
Jane
Although I'd rate Whitehead's more recent Sag Harbor higher for pure enjoyment, this one places near the top on the admiration scale. With its multiple narrative perspectives on the John Henry legend, it's an ingenious tour de force of folklore and pop culture. The writer loves words and their use in the service of cleverness and wit. I may have missed some of the allusions, but I did get a major guffaw out of --I think my memory serves here--"Everything depends on the red pick-up truck filled w...more
sam
Yuck. For the first few pages I was really into it, but it only got worse: Such sophomoric writing, such smarminess, such creakily obvious narrative set-up, such transparent literary tricks to glorify a bunch of soulless characters about whom I couldn't give less of a damn. It read like a second-rate indie movie and made me hate the author behind that awful voice, and I gave up after seventy pages.

Is the rest of this book like this? Is most of Whitehead's work? I haven't read anything else of hi...more
Daniel Otto Jack Petersen
This is my first Colson Whitehead book and I liked it quite a bit. It is a patchwork novel, narrating characters and events from a range of times and places in American history: late 19th century as well as early, mid, and late 20th century - not in that order! These narratives loop backward and forward round one another, but not to the point of incoherence. Several of the set pieces are just exquisite, some of the best stuff I've ever read. By far the most gripping for me was a (fictional) eyew...more
John
Feb 07, 2008 John rated it 1 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: people who've read very other book on the planet
Shelves: novel, mythology
I read this book mostly because it had the words "John Henry" in the title. Hopefully I've learned my lesson, as this was honestly one of the hardest-to-finish books I've ever read - unlikeable characters (especially the main character), plenty of mock-literary contrivances, and little in the ways of discernable plot. It seems to be trying to compare the rigors of a greedy, soul-sucking white-collar life with the backbreaking work of an underpaid railroad worker, but The Onion does a much better...more
Randall
The structure of the narrative here isn't really my cup of tea, so to speak. I enjoyed all the little pieces just fine, but when you spend so little time with so many characters, it's really hard to develop much interest in them. The primary story gets where it needs to go, eventually, but not without what I consider to be an inexplicable number and variety of vignettes related to the main narrative only tangentially and serve mostly as background illumination that doesn't really otherwise drive...more
Dan
Actually I did not finish. I gave up after the first 4 or 5 discs because I still couldn't tell what the book was about or where it was going. A lot like trying to watch MTV. Not sure what the part about the biker kicking the kid's head in had to do with anything. If I want to listen to someone just spilling out everything he knows whether it means anything or has any relevance I could sit and listen to the crazy on the corner shouting to the wind. Not sure why anyone wasted the time to publish...more
Weston High School Library
John Henry Days is a complex, sophisticated, heartbreaking and funny novel that explores themes of endurance, change through technology, and the meaning and implications of shared stories. We’ve all heard the story of John Henry, the steel driving man in West Virginia who challenged a steam drill, won and perished a hero immediately afterwards. Here the story is resurrected by placing it at the center of a present-day inaugural John Henry Days celebration in a town that is right next to the town...more
Patricia
Jun 04, 2014 Patricia added it
Shelves: abandoned
The fact that I abandoned this book may not be entirely the book's responsibility. I was reading it on a very full and rather disjointed vacation, and that, coupled with the very disjointed way the story is presented (each chapter is narrated by a different and often very disparate narrator), made for a lack of continuity that was detrimental to my pleasure, my connection to the characters and, indeed, my comprehension of the plot. I'm pretty sure, though, that I'd have plugged along through it...more
Wendy
I don't know 2, maybe 2.5 stars...Whitehead is a pretty engaging writer, sometimes funny, but I think really needed an editor. Maybe with economic climate so different today from when he wrote it in the go-go 90s, all the PR machine/junket lifestyle thing really feels like bygone times. Somewhere in there is something good about the John Henry legend and there were some clever internal echos/ideas, but overall reading it felt like a lot of work without a lot of payoff.
Byron
This was a bit of a slog, but I want to give it a high rating anyway, because I found the subject matter fascinating and parts of it were just amazing. Journalists and music writers in particular would probably get a kick out of this, both from its depiction of the daily hassle that is that line of work, and from what it has to say about the business of journalism, including how it effects our career choices, how the Internet is changing/destroying it, how it's decided what gets written about an...more
Marvin
I gave up on this one after about 50 pages. Although it got rave reviews in the New York Times & elsewhere, which called attention to stellar prose & themes that interest me, I thought a reviewer for the Library Journal got it right: "Too many characters and a forced [I would add disjointed:] writing style make this an unremarkable work about wasted lives and superficial people."
John Mccoy
I had high hopes for this John Henry Days based on professional reviews and word of mouth. But even though I'm usually stubborn about finishing books I've started, I gave up on this one halfway through. The author seems to have, if not contempt, at least a lack of respect for all of his characters, which makes them hard to care about. They all portrayed with what presents as irony but feels more like a lack of conviction.
He also relies too much on would-be fancy literary "tricks" like changes in...more
David
Well I'm a hundred and sixty seven pages in, and I want to give up. I'm really, really bored. I can handle a book with a meandering plot, a book that jumps between time periods, a book that visits the perspectives of only nebulously related characters, but I can only handle it if the prose sings or the overall concept holds my attention prisoner. Whitehead's language is nice, but not awe inspiring, and though J.'s modern day quest for "the record" does juxtapose interestingly with the legend of...more
Chris O'Brien
As a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer, this book excels as a series of wonderfully crafted vignettes that are sprinkled through the main narrative. Taken as a whole, however, Whitehead seemed to lose his way. The man can write some serious sentences, I'll give him that.
S.
Dec 07, 2007 S. rated it 1 of 5 stars
Shelves: gave-up
Irritatingly overwritten.
Corielle
This book caught my eye due to its title: John Henry Days. My sons’ names are John and Henry. So I picked it up at Half Price Books, skimmed the excellent reviews on the back and tossed it into my cart. Shouldn’t have. While there were a few interesting parts, overall it was a difficult book to read, one that I completed in about twice the amount of time that it should have taken, simply because I didn’t feel like picking it up.

The writing itself was impeccable. Whitehead has a way with words, a...more
Absurdfarce
There's a lot to talk about here.

The narrative core of this novel is built around a sequence of events surrounding John Henry Days, a festival held in Talcott, a rural West Virginia town, to celebrate the life (and death) of that mythical figure of Americana. A number of characters have converge on the Talcott Motor Lodge for the festivities, each with their own connection to the legend and each with some level of baggage. These characters are rich enough that their interaction, along with the a...more
Seán
Pretty dope.

Popular Narcissism:
The miles retreat. Lawrence says it's not that much farther, and Lucien thinks, all these trees are for me. To delight his eye. He wonders if the natural drift of his thoughts makes him a narcissist, but then reassures himself that he is only substituting the concept of Lucien for the larger family of man. For simplicity's sake. He's thinking about all humanity, not just himself. ... Lucien's I is a democratic beast, many-headed, fork-tongued. Neolithic toolmakers
...more
Siria
I'm either several years too late reading this book, or several years too early—Whitehead's descriptions of the early dotcom boom and its accompanying technology, of journalists (sorry, "journalists") on pointless junkets, while rendered in some wonderful prose, now seems dated. I don't think enough time has passed for descriptions of how a bot works, or how early search engines were compiled, to have acquired some sort of retro nostalgia.

This, of course, is a quibble which Whitehead couldn't n...more
Mike Williams
Great writer, but it just wasn't for me. If you've read David Foster Wallace 's The Pale King, this book felt quite similar. I have to wonder if this book was an inspiration for Wallace's. Whitehead makes some interesting points about change, progress, old and new media, but the people he uses to make the point were as odd and boring to me as the IRS agents on The Pale King.

Whitehead is very funny, and that humor helped to push me through the story. But overall, this was a cumbersome read for me...more
Tung
I have slightly mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, Colson proves with this book that he is one of the most technically gifted writer of his generation. The book describes a PR junketeer attending an event in a town where legend has it the real John Henry worked in, and Colson manages to weave the present day story with the John Henry legend with the famous Ballad of John Henry – just superb structural craftsmanship. The first negative is that Colson is so talented, he tends to take...more
Johnsergeant
Listened to audiobook from Recorded Books

Narrated By: Peter Jay Fernandez

J. Sutter is a bonafide junketeer--a freelance writer, travelling from city to city, hungry for free meals and the discarded sales receipts of others to claim on his expense account. Travelling into the backwoods of West Virginia to write a piece on the unveiling of the new John Henry postage stamp and the ensuing John Henry Days festival, J. continues his nearly record-setting, three-month junket binge. But when he begins...more
Debs
"The air is an admixture of nitrogen, oxygen, trace gases, and one of these trace gases is American cliche and we breathe it in with our first breath." (192)

Colson Whitehead is a genius. He has the MacArthur cash to prove it. He also has John Henry Days. This book is a journey through the 20th century using pop culture as its sign posts and the legend of John Henry as a theme for unfinished business and dreams of self-fulfillment never realized. He does have a lot to thank Don Dillo for. If I wa...more
Cathy
This was so beautifully written, such a tour-de-force, that I feel I should have given it five stars. But I bogged down in the many digressive chapters about characters, never to be seen again, who are involved in some way in the legend of John Henry (the folklorist, the song-plugger, the bluesman, etc.). One of these, about the daughter of a prim, striving black mother frantically clawing for the respectable middle-class, who has a short but transformative encounter with the sheet music for the...more
Caren
A challenging read because the subject, location style of the novel are all so off-kilter from conventional expectations. It is more realist than The Intuitionist, yet less so than Sag Harbor. Hard to pinpoint exactly what makes it work, just know that it made a huge impression--which is a lot to say for a novel that is largely about... Stamps.
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Colson Whitehead was born in 1969, and was raised in Manhattan. After graduating from Harvard College, he started working at the Village Voice, where he wrote reviews of television, books, and music.

His first novel, The Intuitionist, concerned intrigue in the Department of Elevator Inspectors, and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway and a winner of the Quality Paperback Book Club's New Voices Awa...more
More about Colson Whitehead...
Zone One The Intuitionist Sag Harbor Apex Hides the Hurt The Colossus of New York

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“...and for the second time that day he blesses the certainty of airports because he can always turn around and go someplace else.” 1 likes
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