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John Henry Days

3.65  ·  Rating Details ·  1,591 Ratings  ·  141 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, 400 pages
Published May 14th 2002 by Anchor (first published 2001)
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Apr 13, 2011 Craig rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction, favorites
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
Wes Freeman
Dec 08, 2008 Wes Freeman rated it really liked it
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
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
Feb 27, 2009 Chris rated it really liked it
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
Deb Oestreicher
Jul 27, 2011 Deb Oestreicher rated it it was amazing
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
First Second Books

This one has been on my shelf for a few years--I read Sag Harbor, The Intuitionist, Apex Hides the Hurt, and Zone One multiple times so obviously I'm a huge Whitehead fan, but for some reason John Henry Days slipped through the cracks. I'm glad it did, because it gave me a new Whitehead book to read while I waited for The Underground Railroad to come out. It didn't disappoint. I usually have extremely limited tolerance for books that jump POV as much as this one does -- they more often than not
Nov 04, 2009 Jane rated it really liked it
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
Daniel Otto
Apr 05, 2013 Daniel Otto rated it liked it
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
Chris Chester
Oct 17, 2014 Chris Chester rated it really liked it
By some strange chance, I happened to pick this book up when I came upon it in a used bookstore in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. I had never been to West Virginia before, nor can I recall having read a book set there (Deliverance was further south, right?), so it seemed serendipitous perhaps to purchase a book set in the state while briefly setting foot there.

But I digress.

John Henry Days is not at all what I thought it would be, but is actually not too out there, once I really think about it.
Feb 03, 2008 John rated it did not like it
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
Aug 06, 2010 sam rated it did not like it
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
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
Feb 02, 2011 Dan rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 02, 2011 Wendy rated it it was ok
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.
Aug 10, 2009 Marvin rated it did not like it
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."
Chris O'Brien
May 21, 2007 Chris O'Brien rated it liked it
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.
Dec 07, 2007 S. rated it did not like it
Shelves: gave-up
Irritatingly overwritten.
Carolyn Fitzpatrick
This book centers upon a variety of characters affected by a little West Virginia town's "John Henry Days" celebration, which has been made more important than usually by the release of new folk hero themed stamps. There is a central protagonist, J, but the story jumps from character to character, and back and forth in time. We learn about J's life and that of other journalists in town with him, a young woman trying to decide what to do with her father's John Henry collection, the husband and wi ...more
Colson Whitehead is an author on everyone’s list these days because of his latest novel, “The Underground Railroad;” I can only hope my name will come to the top of my local library’s reserve list some day. My curiosity about all the praise for “The Underground Railroad” and Whitehead’s previous writing, however, led me to “John Henry Days,” published in 2001.

I found this book compelling on so many levels: the weaving of parallel lives moving toward one event, the launching of a commemorative st
Mary Meiklejohn
Jan 31, 2017 Mary Meiklejohn rated it liked it
I find it frustrating to read a book that a) is written by someone with immense, astonishing, overwhelming talent and b) needed an editor to go at it with a chainsaw.
Jan 02, 2017 Raoul rated it liked it
Very interesting at times but somewhat difficult to connect the pieces.
Dan Cotter
Dec 31, 2016 Dan Cotter rated it really liked it
Very entertaining book about the legend, John Henry, and a bunch or reporters who cover events around the country. Really enjoyed the interweaving stories.
Weston High School Library
Jul 15, 2014 Weston High School Library rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
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
Jan 01, 2012 Absurdfarce rated it really liked it
Shelves: literature
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
Dec 16, 2015 Dale rated it it was amazing
Colson Whitehead is consistently and inarguably a rock star. The depth and breadth of humanity - from our shared uneasiness and guilt about slavery - for all races and how its addressed by people in the modern day, the idiosyncrasies and obscure interests that sometimes - particularly in a world where we're all OCD to some extent or another - easily become addictions borne out of a desire for spirituality or meaning or a connection with history, how everything from the Old Testament to the Folk ...more
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
Jan 02, 2014 Corielle rated it it was ok
Shelves: owned
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
May 31, 2014 Byron rated it really liked it
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
Patrick Gaughan
Dec 12, 2016 Patrick Gaughan rated it it was amazing
One of the best books I read in 2015. Very funny.
Chris Wharton
A small-town festival in West Virginia is the site for the 1996 unveiling of a commemorative John Henry (of steel driving fame) stamp. In attendance is a group of cynical freeloading publicity writers who roam from PR event to PR event living off freebies offered by businesses and organizations in return for publicity for their events and products. One of these, J., an African American, is challenged in his pursuit of a “consecutive events attended” record by his encounters with two other attend ...more
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Authenticity 1 1 Dec 06, 2016 08:26PM  
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I'm the author of the novels Zone One; Sag Harbor; The Intuitionist, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award; John Henry Days, which won the Young Lions Fiction Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and Apex Hides the Hurt, winner of the PEN Oakland Award. I've also written a book of essays about my home town, The Colossus of New York, and a non-fiction ac ...more
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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.” 3 likes
“You should have gone yourself, you ask for a Coke and they come back with orange drink. No one understands the martyrdom of the volunteers for the trip to food concession.” 1 likes
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