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 is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of eleven works of fiction and nonfiction, and is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, for The Nickel Boys and The Underground Railroad, which also won the National Book Award. A recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships, he lives in New York City.
Harlem Shuffle is the first book in The Harlem Trilogy. The second, Crook Manifesto, will be published in 2023.
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 1000 times. But don't be mistaken: the last few chapters are emotional gold. The entirety of the book, conceptually and structurally, is freaking genius.
This is most assuredly a novel about character, characters in the literary vein of Ahab, obsessed beyond the brink: with stamps, with memory, with ghosts, with stories, with notoriety. And that transcends history, it transcends the narrative threads in the novel, it transcends human experience.
But there is also the structure of the novel, which is explained in the prologue: all story is composed of multiple stories of individuals. Subjectivity is a bitch, and it can be tedious to sift through the multiple narrative threads of real life. And oh, look, the book is structured in the EXACT same way! What is contemporary folklore and mythology? How has it transformed since 2001 (or 1996 in the timeline of the novel)? It would be interesting to see where J. is at today.
In terms of tone, what everyone is dismissing as Whitehead being ever-clever here is really very simple: there is a racial tet-a-tet in the South that must be rendered in irony so that one doesn't just give up altogether. To dismiss the humor as too smart means there are some really stupid readers reading this book.
I want my authors to challenge me to the edge, like the characters in this novel get pushed to the edge. How else does one work through the mental/ historical chains to self-actualization?
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 spot-on descriptions of airport->hotel->airport->hotel malaise. Lest this start to sound like Office Space: The Novel, should point out book has a warning: You are John Henry, pop culture is steam drill, race is on. Central question of book is whether or not John Henry really won his race, cuz, you know, he died. Author handles many threads at once, one of which is that John Henry, through song has become a pop icon. This dark and ironic thread joins others, author makes good rope, end of the book is a noose.
Whitehead is without a doubt one of the most skilled writers in American literature. His sentences are dense and filled with meaning, but also beautiful, vivid, and expressive. He shines here, in his take of the John Henry story, exploring its origins, its interpretations, and how it has penetrated deep into the canon of American mythology, culminating at a festival commemorating Henry's fatal attempt to defeat a steam powered machine aiming to displace human steel drivers.
All that said, the story at times is too complicated, encompassing too many perspectives, to hold together cohesively. It took me two months to get through it and partly that is the result of how Whitehead has structured the narrative. The multiple stories being told definitely add to the breadth of what he's trying to accomplish, but it takes away from the sheer enjoyment of reading Whitehead's prose.
Worth picking up but my least favourite of the three Whitehead books I have read so far.
The divisiveness, polarization, and anger in American society did not start with the current president and shouldn't be fully laid at his door. For many years, Americans have been unmercifully criticizing their country and one another. Literary examples are many, including Colson Whitehead's novel "John Henry Days". This book is long and broad-themed in the tradition of the Great American Novel. The book is overwritten and mannered. Characters and story are less important for themselves than as a means for social commentary. The book is largely a sharply satirical critique of American history and American culture. The novel doesn't so much critique American polarization and divisions as make itself part of the polarization and division. One can sympathize with questioning the view of the United States presented here. I rarely fail to finish a book. But I read almost exactly one-half of "John Henry Days" and found myself unable and unwilling to continue.
Degli ultimi suoi tre libri pubblicati in Italia, questo resta in assoluto il più difficile da leggere. Colson Whitehead narra storie del dolore e dei soprusi disumani che hanno dovuto sopportare i neri. Questa storia si svolge su più piani temporali (e questo ne rende difficile la lettura) che vanno dal 1800 agli anni ‘60 al 1996 e così via, saltando da un periodo all’altro senza avvertire il lettore. Tanti i personaggi coinvolti (e questo è un altro motivo che rende difficile la lettura), tutti collegati alla figura di John Henry. Dalla storia e dalla morte di questo uomo (che con la sua mazza rompeva la montagna) nasce una ballata che si tramanda negli anni. E quando si dimenticavano le parole, allora chi la cantava ne aggiungeva di sue e quelle aggiunte parlavano della sua storia dentro quella di John Henry. Queste pagine sono dense del dolore di uomini e donne di colore che sono stati martoriati e che non hanno per questo perso la loro dignità. Nonostante sia un libro difficile da leggere, resta sempre un bel libro, perché ci sono tante pagine “perfette” ad alto lirismo come questa, solo per citarne una: “Il dolore è l’anticipo che va pagato per la felicità. A questo mondo la felicità si paga con il lutto. Questa fiera annuale, e il museo di John Henry quando sarà finito, porteranno il mondo intero alla loro cittadina, e al Talcott Motor Lodge. È un nuovo inizio ma, ai suoi occhi, ancora non è stato pagato. C’è del sangue da pagare. John Henry ha versato il suo, per la ferrovia, per i compagni di lavoro, per Talcott e Hinton. Da dove verrà il sangue di questo fine settimana?”
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 feat of drilling a tunnel through mountain to allow the continuation of train tracks. The man of course, is John Henry. He is the stuff of legend regardless of whether he was ever one of flesh and blood, so a stamp has been created to commemorate him and a festival is taking place to mark the occasion. Colson Whitehead approaches this weekend from a wide variety of angles. Among the people involved in the build-up is a man researching the origins of a song written about John Henry, a man who collects railroad stamps, a woman who owns a hotel in the town where the festival is taking place, a man so obsessed with John Henry that he turned his home into a museum dedicated to him, that man's daughter, a journalist covering the events of the weekend, and John Henry himself. Hints are given throughout the book that just as the famous race ended in foretold tragedy, so will the commemoration. Whitehead has a beautiful way with words. If you're looking for a character driven novel where you'll deeply identify with and care for the protagonist, look elsewhere. If you're looking for a traditional beginning, middle, end style story rather than one which jumps back and forth in time and place, go find another book. But if you're interested in a distinctive approach to examination of a symbolic event, one that will be timely so long as people either resist, embrace, take advantage of, or become victims to the changes brought about by the march of progress, then I point you in the direction of John Henry Days. John took a last stand for human determination before it was replaced by mindless but more efficient machinery. Win or lose, his effort was in vain. He may as well have been battling death. We can postpone arrival of the Grim Reaper, but inevitably his date of arrival will be reached.
What a wonderful find and a generally unknown mystery for most West Virginians. In "John Henry Days" we have a local story (Talcott is just 20 miles down river from me), a WV tale, and one of the finest and most accessible Postmodernist novels ever written. I have been reading and rereading the novel for a while now and it has been an immense pleasure each time. It is a work of tremendous detail on human existence.
Like all great Postmodernist novels it is an unrepentant criticism of Late Capitalism and its commodization of the human spirit. Utilizing the history of the John Henry legend Whitehead offers a critical analysis of capitalism's exploitation of labor from the Gilded Age of the 19th century to the fin de siecle of the 20th century. While the author does maintain a subplot of the issue of race in economics, the main focus is exploitation of the arts and its role in a free market. He traces this from the early period of musical commodification of sheet music to records to Broadway plays and the same with the field of writing in the realm of publicity and marketing with the rise of the Internet.
Colson also injects the concept of perspective as a multiplicity. John Henry is seen through the eyes of the locals, the Washingtonian bureaucracy, the New York marketing apparachiks, and the American mythos. This faceted gaze is also turned to West Virginia and its own place in our nation's collective conscience:
"These little telling details." "And you see those dents on the statue? People come around and use it for target practice. One time they chained the statue to a pickup and dragged it off the pedestal down the road here. Then the statue fell off and they drove off so they found it next day just lying in the road." "Probably not much to do here on a Saturday night." "Hmm."
What does this short conversation between the two principal African American characters tell us about the history of race in our country and the echos of Southern lynchings it creates in our minds? Or is Whitehead reminding us that we are all just objects of entertainment, objects of utility? Are we all just doomed to die "with a hammer in our hands"?
Unlike the novel, John Henry Days is a real event held at Talcott in Summers County WV each year on the second weekend in July. It is as wholesome a piece of Americana as Colson portrays it in his prose. So grab the book and come set a-spell!
It is pretty clear to me from this book that Whitehead is a versatile and ambitious writer. I really liked the Delillo-like riffs on simulacra and modern malaise, the Doctorow-like ability to time travel to a historical era and the Kunzru-like (only Whitehead did it here first) dive in to African American cultural appropriation.
The book uses the fictional launch of a John Henry commemorative stamp (to be part of a set that will include other American folkloric heroes Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill and Casey at the Bat) as its inspiration and the main character is J. Sutter, a “junketeer” which is sort of a professional grifter-journalist who goes from movie opening to product launch, allegedly to write it up for some news outlet but really for the open bar and free lunch and the expense account, which he inflates by fishing for abandoned receipts to claim for reimbursement.
The book moves from satire to absurdity to passages so moving it was hard not to cry. There is also a black cloud of the threat of violence hovering over the entire novel, for example when a black man feels perfectly fine standing in line to buy beer with crack-heads and drug dealers at 2:00 AM in Brooklyn in one section but is later worried about his wellbeing in broad daylight in small town West Virginia.
But for all its brilliance, there was a lot of writing in here that tends to annoy me and pull me out, such as, “The smoke lights out into the dark lands and swirls away by forces into diasporic scattering.” or “…that block where street lights stare blindly, handicapped by vandalism and city neglect, where shadows confab to trade samizdat decrying illumination.”. Finally, there is certain cohesion to the novel, but I found that congruity difficult to hang on to as I read.
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 collector and the daughter of a collector of John Henry-ana), and John Henry himself.
The book is full of really terrific writing: some of it satire, some of it straight-out storytelling, and some of it jaw-droppingly beautiful. I'm especially fond of a short section set at a fair, in which we observe individuals in the crowd from the inside as well as the outside (as though we're passing angels, as in Wings of Desire).
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 peach" both made me laugh at their cleverness, but it was a hollow laughter, as they served no purpose other than act as a knowing wink between over-educated author and over-educated reader. Luckily, such post-modern excess were rare, and most of the book was enjoyable and bitting. It was a bit too much like vintage DeLillo (who I love, but not when reading Whitehead), but still great. Not for people who bridle at DeLillo's identical characters opining in identically clever voices, but like "White Noise," you don't read :John Henry" for character, but for ideas and a scathing look at contemporary American Society,
Ennustamisen hirmuinen mieliteko. Niin hirmuinen, että en kykene olemaan ennustamatta.
Siis ennustan (olen siis olemassa).
Ennustan, että on tuleva päivä, jolloin Colson Whitehead saa Nobelin kirjallisuuspalkinnon. Jos ennustukseni ei toteudu, tapahtuu vääryys.
Whitehead tuli suomalaisten laajempaan tietoisuuteen romaanillaan Nickelin pojat. Se on herättänyt ansaittua kehua ja kummallista olisikin, jos niin ei olisi käynyt. Nickelin pojat on vetävästi kerrottu tarina, joka nostaa päivänvaloon yhdysvaltalaisen rasismin.
Balladi John Henrystä on teknisesti hyvin eri tyyppinen kirja kuin Nickelin pojat. BJH:stä ei löydy juonivetoista lukijan mukaansa kieputtavaa tarinaa, vaan kirja hypähtelee eteenpäin eri henkilöiden näkökulmien kautta. On jollakin tapaa suorastaan kohtuuton ruopatessaan mukaansa myös osia, joiden välttämättömyyttä itse teoksen kannalta ei aina ole helppo pitää perusteltuna.
BJH:n pohjalla on romaanin nimen mukaisesti legenda John Henrystä. Mustasta miehestä, joka rakensi rautatietunnelia ja voitti moukarillaan höyrykoneen, ja voiton saavutettuaan kaatui kuolleena maahan.
John Henryn legenda ei ollut minulle aiemmin tuttu, mutta kun etsin siitä tietoa kävi ilmi, että kyse on varsin isosta jutusta. John Henrystä on tehty elokuvia ja animaatioita. Hän on esiintynyt henkilöhahmona tv-ohjelmissa ja jopa videopeleissä. John Henryn kohtalosta ovat laulaneet myös lukuisat muusikot, mm. Johnny Cash, Van Morrison, Harry Belafonte, Bruce Springsteen ja Jerry Lee Lewis. Kirjojakin hänestä on kirjoitettu jo ennen Whiteheadia. Vuonna 1931 julkaistiin Roark Bradfordin kirjoittama romaani John Henry, joka myöhemmin sovitettiin musikaaliksi.
BJH alkaa vastauksilla, joita ihmiset ovat lähettäneet tutkivan toimittajan lehdessä julkaisemaan tiedusteluun John Henryn elämänvaiheista. Yksi Whiteheadin romaanin peruspilareista koostuukin pyrkimyksistä löytää totuus John Henryn tarinasta. Tehtävä osoittautuu tietenkin mahdottomaksi, sillä ihmiset muistavat asioita eri tavalla, eikä heidän puheisiinsa ole luottamista. Lisäksi vuosien myötä John Henryn kohtalo on legendoitunut lukemattomilla tavoilla.
Näin kerätään folklorista materiaalia, kasataan sitä, lajitellaan, etsitään tehottomalla suurennuslasilla aaveen jalanjälkiä. Hän ei ollut osannut varautua kertomusten moninaisuuteen ja paljouteen. Ei, hän ei ollut lainkaan aavistanut seikkailunsa todellisia mittasuhteita. Yksi ainoa mies vastassaan kokonainen ristiriitaisten todistajalausuntojen vuori.
Toimittajan pyrkimyksessä löytää totuus peilautuu John Henryn tilanne. Siinä missä jälkimmäinen kilpaili höyrykoneen kanssa, toimittaja taas taistelee ihmisten erinäisten tulkintojen ja muistikuvien viidakossa ja pyrkii siivilöimään niistä esiin totuuden John Henryn elämästä.
Whitehead ironisoi romaanissaan moninkertaisesti mustan miehen typistämisen yksinomaan myyttiset fyysiset voimat omaavaksi lihaskimpuksi. Esiin nousee myös kysymys siitä, kuka pystyisi puolueettomimmin lähestymään John Henryn legendaa. Valkoisille vaikuttaa olennaisinta olevan luoda John Henrystä eksotisoitua tarinaa, joka vastaa valkoisten "romantisoitua käsitystä neekereistä".
Whitehead kuvaa valtavaa härdelliä John Henryn legendan ympärillä. Ajan hengen mukaisesti John Henryn kohtaloa käytetään hyväksi rakentamalla spektaakkelimaiset John Henry -päivät, joilla joka ikinen murunen John Henryn (oletetusta) persoonasta valjastetaan ostopotentiaaliksi kapitalismin reippaassa merchandise-hengessä.
Ihan oma lukunsa ovat BJH:ssa ne lukuisat toimittajat, jotka kiertävät siipeilemässä tilaisuudesta toiseen ilmaisen ruoan ja juoman perässä kelpo hyeenalauman lailla.
Vaikka Whiteheadin romaani poukkoileekin välillä hieman yli äyräidensä on John Henry sen jatkuvasti läsnäoleva suola, joka pitää teosta koossa. Kirjallisesti BJH on Nickelin poikia kunnianhimoisempi ja rakenteellisesti kiinnostavampi. Yhtä lailla suuren yleisön kirja se tuskin on, mutta sen sijaan se on vakuuttava näyttö Whiteheadin taidoista luoda tärkeää ja kirjallisesti korkeatasoista kirjallisuutta.
Damn, to've read this in 2001 when it was fresh, when Colson Whitehead was just the weird dude who wrote about the elevator inspectors. We've all experienced the greatness of his work since then, all the way to the culmination of everything that came before in The Underground Railroad, and so it's a little obvious to say that this book is, like pretty much all of his work, astounding. But this book is dense, it is confounding, it leads you down paths that it doesn't explain. And the ending, of course, leaves you asking the same question that people have been asking about John Henry the whole time: how much of it was true? Did he die then, did he die later? In 2001, I might've thought the book overly ambitious and a little flawed in its execution; but in 2018, knowing what happens next (for Whitehead, for the country), it's hard not to say "god, he was this good that early?"
Whitehead’s first three novels, of which this is the second, strike me as different than his recent work; they’re more elaborate in their construction (especially this one) and more allegorical in their nature. Whereas Whitehead from Sag Harbor onward strikes me as more direct, more character-driven; just as focused on the impact of systems like racism and capitalism on his characters as on analysis of the systems themselves. Which is not to say that early Whitehead is dry - he was always wickedly funny - but his more recent books seem a little more grounded in a world I know, even as they carry on the ambitious spirit that he had from the start.
It’s easy to see why he made the switch; his third, Apex Hides the Hurt, falls a little short of his high standard, suggesting he might have gone back to the same well one time too many. Still, I’m drawn to these first two. Where The Intuitionist is extraordinarily crafted, this book is the opposite. It interrogates its central themes, the proliferation of legends and the way racism and capitalism feed on each other, from a thousand different lenses - pop songs, period vignettes, a little light espionage, and of course the John Henry story. Somehow this all arranges around a county fair commemorating a John Henry stamp, no matter how far it might seem to spin away. It’s not quite as controlled as the Intuitionist or the Nickel Boys, but this just might be one of those books Bolano celebrated, an imperfect and torrential work that blazes paths into the unknown.
La lettura mi ha esaltato per le prime 100 pagine, poi la ridondanza della struttura del romanzo e gli espedienti narrativi escogitati e ripetuti mi hanno portato dopo la metà del libro a fare una grossa fatica nel proseguire. Tuttavia nelle ultime 200 pagine il libro mi ha sorpreso e mi ha legato alla lettura in un modo che non mi capitava da anni. Il libro ha un modus narrandi simile all'Ulisse di Joyce (stream of consciousness). Le pagine si susseguono nella definizione delle elucubrazioni dei personaggi che si rincorrono senza rispettare una linea temporale armonica. I personaggi sono vari e spesso le prime pagine di ogni capitolo ti lasciano con l’inquietudine di non capire quale personaggio sia quello che sta parlando in quel momento. La storia di John Henry e della sua sfida ad una macchina trivellatrice a vapore, si intreccia con quella di un giornalista J. Sutter e dei suoi amici "Sbafisti", Pamela Street figlia di un collezionista sfegatato di cimeli di J. Henry, A. Miggs collezionista di francobolli e tanti altri personaggi meno rilevanti. L'unico vero punto di intersezione è l'"Evento" commemorativo delle gesta di John Henry del 1996 nella cittadina di Talcott, in West Virginia. L'evento sarà inaspettato per tutti ed in diversa misura. Tra l'altro il tema della discriminazione raziale è gestita con una sensibilità sopraffina in tutto il romanzo senza mai togliere la scena alle elucubrazioni ed alle dinamiche del plot del romanzo.
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 feel like creative writing assignments or formal exercises more than coherent narratives, but Whitehead (of course) pulls it off perfectly.
I DNF at 21 percent. I tried to finish this book, but honestly nothing was grabbing me at all. Initially, I was intrigued about how Whitehead would weave in John Henry into the story, but instead we seem to be flip flopping between different narrative styles. I really loved "Underground Railroad" and was hoping for more of the same here, but this book really needed some magical realism or something like the former book to really make it stand out.
"John Henry Days" takes a look at folk hero John Henry and an African American journalist (called J) who is flying into the town that claims him to write about the John Henry Days celebration. Whitehead goes back and forth between J and just random characters in this book. I think this is his way of taking a look at race in America. I just couldn't force myself to keep reading this.
I didn't care one whit about J the only character that I think that we follow through this whole book. I found the writing to be uneven. There were way too many metaphors. The chapters were really short too which doesn't allow you enough time to get settled into whatever POV you are currently in while reading.
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 with crackers."
Oof. I would call this book a slog. The action of the book is interspersed with so many flashbacks, vignettes and sidebars that the pace becomes snail-like. Also, it's one of those books that screams "THIS AUTHOR DID TONS OF RESEARCH!!", which is laudable, but I couldnt stop thinking about how much work this book must have been and simply _enjoy_ the product of that research.
A really impressive and fascinating novel in many ways. The story of John Henry as song, as legend, as tourist attraction is the narrative thread. The focus is on John Henry Days, a festival in West Virginia that has been created to celebrate John Henry and the issuing of a stamp of him, but more importantly to bring tourists to two small and economically struggling towns. Much of the story is through the eyes of J. Sutter, a black journalist and junketeer, whose visit to the festival has been paid for so that he can write about it. He and the other junketeers attend many of the same events throughout the country, writing about events large and small for web sites, magazines, newspapers, and trade organizations, even though they are jaded about the process and the things they write about. The best parts of the novel are the multiple points of view that span the last hundred years or so, from John Henry to a song plugger to a man whose life has been consumed by collecting John Henry memorabilia to a stamp collector whose focus is on railroad stamps. J. Sutter is going for a record on junkets that he's writing about, but his interest is pulled away by the daughter of the John Henry collector, who has resented her father and what his mania for collecting did to him. I would have liked less on the junketeers since they're an annoying and good old boys bunch for the most part. Whitehead's writing reminds me a little of Thomas Pynchon, David Wallace, and David Bradley, which is a pretty good recommendation.
Before this I'd only read The Underground Railroad, but Whitehead's reputation preceded him: he's versatile and has a permanently active, connection-making mind that's on full show in John Henry Days. John Henry is an American folk hero, although he probably did really live, in some form or another, a steeldriver on the C&O railroad. Faced with the prospect of losing his job to an automated steam drill, he's said to have challenged the drill to a contest, and won, before dropping dead of exhaustion. Using this semi-historical, semi-mythological event as a thematic focal point, Whitehead riffs on the value of work, particularly on the value of work done by undervalued bodies (brown ones and/or female ones, predominantly), in late-capitalist America. His other protagonist, J. Sutter, is a black journalist who is on a junketeering streak: for months, he's been at a PR event every day or night. His latest assignment is the official unveiling of the new John Henry postage stamp, and the John Henry Days festival, in the town of Talcott, West Virginia. Whitehead is so exuberantly creative, both with language (which he uses in the manner of an extremely skilled and show-off-y chef wielding a very sharp knife) and with the scope of his ambition (chapters range from the recounting of a violent Rolling Stones concert to the story of the first musician to put the folk ballad on paper), that sometimes the book feels unfocused. But who gives a shit when there's this much going on?
This novel is about people who come together to celebrate figure of folklore John Henry, when he is commemorated by a stamp in his hometown of Talcott, WV. The primary narrator of this novel is junketeer J. Sutter, a man we readers know almost as little as we know about John Henry, another sometimes narrator. Other narrators include the daughter of a John Henry memorabilia collector, a railroad stamp collector. Here is a black anthropologist/ ethnographer: “… John Henry has become a byword, a synonym for superstrength and superendurence.... They talk to him and sing to him as they work and loaf…. I can study the legend but I cannot conceive of the man.” (162) I liked this book without loving it. I read this Read Harder Challenge #5 read a book by or about a journalist. I borrowed this from inter library loan.
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) eyewitness account of the 1969 Rolling Stones/Hell's Angels debacle in the desert. It is horrifically fascinating (and told in the dazzlingly authentic voice of an old white rock journalist).
If it surprises you that such an account would find itself in the midst of a novel ostensibly about the legend of John Henry and the history of the railroads of America, then it gives you an indication of the unexpected turns this novel takes. You will indeed encounter very richly rendered passages on John Henry himself working away at his legendary steel-driving as a member of the work crews making railroad tunnels through America's mountains. You will also see 'temp' workers in an office helping create search engine content for the very latest (1996) in internet technology. You'll be a hack journalist in a convenience store queue in the middle of the night with junkies in modern (1990s) Brooklyn one chapter, a 1950s blues singer on the make in Chicago in another, a middle class ten-year-old black girl in late 1940s Harlem in yet another, and have a modern press pass to a phantasmagoric-dystopic book launch in still another.
There are one or two moments of suspense or violence, a few moments of eeriness or horror, lots of chuckles and some outright laughs. There are tons of wry observations and insights about the contemporary grotesque-yet-bland circus of pop culture and media and technology. (Wonderful refrains are scattered throughout about the 'plodding obeisance of pop', 'He had been devoured by pop', 'deep into cold pop', 'life under pop', etc.) There is poignancy and there is dystopia. It is about ecology as much as culture. Indeed, you could perhaps call it the story of 'Pop vs. The Mountain'.
(I know you will be few, but if any of you are R. A. Lafferty fans like I am, you'll perhaps be as surprised and delighted as I was to find some very interesting resonances between the two otherwise disparate authors.)
The book suffers from its form. It is hard to be impelled by any one narrative thread. There is a (shiftless but very likeable) main character and his is the main story of the novel, but he can be off stage for long swathes of narration. At times the pages fly by but at others they grind to a halt. There is always some reward in moving forward, some new set piece you wouldn't have guessed and for which you are very glad you kept going. But it is a long, sprawling, high-minded 'great American novel' (if bitingly ironic in its high-mindedness).
The latent (and sometimes blatant) prejudice toward many white and 'country' people from an NYC perspective was off-putting at times, if understandable. But there was, at least, an honesty to the narrative that often admitted it was big city paranoia toward the rest of the country. (A neglected theme that could use its own novel-length treatments.)
It is also a very philosophically bleak novel. There are certain versions of this kind of bleakness that for some reason I can totally take to (e.g. Cormac McCarthy), but in this novel I found it bordering on depressing for me personally. It is mostly quite deeply cynical. (Not in the sense of having no sympathy for characters, but rather in the sense of seeming to 'see through' just about *everything*, bordering on nihilism. Some, I know, find such a worldview bracing. I find it untrue.) Still, I can relate to the novel's world-weary vision. Considering its pessimism, it is actually remarkable that it stays true to the instinctual yearning to find a scrap of meaning or value or goodness, mostly failing but maybe showing a glimmer of hope in the end. It is a search for authenticity in a world of slick, sick fakery and I salute the author for turning away in disgust from so much of contemporary American culture.
I am definitely very excited to go on to read the rest of Colson Whitehead's novels.
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. After all the varied and multifaceted legend of John Henry can be adapted to suit just about any purpose. It's a story of man's triumph and fall in the face of progress. It's a story about manifest destiny and conquering the American continent. Or the working man besting bourgy businessman and his contrivances.
So the possibilities are really endless.
And rather than picking just one lens to examine the John Henry legend, Whitehead seems to have decided to tell them all at once, in a series of vignettes that span the country, time and the meta-narrative.
At it's core, John Henry Days feels like an attack on the notion of work. Or if not an attack, then a sympathetic lament. There are a host of characters that writhe under their unfulfilled potential. The main character J. striving in the self-consciously meaningless world of junketeering. A jazz musician selling his best work on a lark for $50. A black power pioneer who shuffles from a college podium And John Henry himself, killing himself and others so that C&O can building a railroad through a mountain instead of around it.
Indeed, the only character in the whole book who doesn't seem to squirm around with a hole in his core is the polished PR Manager, a profession that I guess encourages one to embrace the darkness and hold it close.
His prose is at first whip-smart and incisive in an almost Woody Allenish way, but as it chugs along towards the conclusion, it begins to unwind and begins to lazily thrash at caricatures and stereotypes in a way that disrupts the narrative before coming together at the end.
I guess the question I find myself asking after just finishing the book is... do I buy the premise that modern man -- in fealty to the new media that is "welfare for middle class white people" as I think Whitehead puts it -- is his struggle, sacrifices and failure the same as John Henry's? Is the post-modern attempt to chisel a life out of a mountain of irony as noble and doomed as John Henry's?
I still don't know, but I do enjoy the conversation.
I feel like I might have enjoyed this book more had I read it at the time of its release in 2001. Nearly 20 years after the fact, I didn't find the book to meet the expectations I had based on its early reviews, nor rise up to the level of Whitehead's later work. The writing is without question solid, but the side trips to various events and times often come across as the result of writing exercises -- write a chapter that uses only one (lengthy) paragraph, write a chapter in the form of a script -- that I thought took away from a more interesting story. It feels like there might be other, better, ways to make some of the same social comments. More troubling, and as others have noted in their reviews, the book moves slowly with very little happening. Well before I was done I found myself eyeing the rest of my nightstand book pile and looking forward to a more enjoyable read.