JOHN HENRY DAYS

Whitehead, Colson

Published by Doubleday, 2001
ISBN 10: 0385498195 / ISBN 13: 9780385498197
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Synopsis: In a glowing review of Colson Whitehead's first novel, The Intuitionist, the New York Times Book Review concluded, "Literary reputations may not always rise and fall as predictably as elevators, but if there's any justice in the world of fiction, Colson Whitehead's should be heading toward the upper floors." With John Henry Days, Colson Whitehead delivers on the promise of his critically acclaimed debut in a magnificent new novel: a retelling of the legend of John Henry that sweeps across generations and cultures in a stunning, hilarious, and unsettling portrait of American society.

Immortalized in folk ballads, John Henry has been a favorite American hero since the mid-nineteenth century. According to legend, John Henry, a black laborer for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, was a man of superhuman strength and stamina. He proved his mettle in a contest with a steam drill, only to die of exhaustion moments after his triumph.

In John Henry Days, Colson Whitehead transforms the simple ballad into a contrapuntal masterpiece. The narrative revolves around the story of J. Sutter, a young black journalist. Sutter is a "junketeer," a freeloading hack who roams from one publicity event to another, abusing his expense account and mooching as much as possible. It is 1996, and an assignment for a travel Web site takes Sutter to West Virginia for the first annual "John Henry Days" festival, a celebration of a new U.S. postal stamp honoring John Henry. And there the real story of John Henry emerges in graceful counterpoint to Sutter's thoroughly modern adventure.

As he explores the parallels between the lives of these two black men, and between the Industrial Age, which literally killed John Henry, and the Digital Age that is destroying J. Sutter's soul, Whitehead adds multiple dimensions to the myth of the steel-driving man. And in dazzling set pieces, he traces the evolution of the famous ballad over the past century. John Henry Days is a novel of extraordinary scope and mythic power that juxtaposes history and popular culture, the blatant bigotry of the past with the more insidious racism of the present, and laugh-out-loud humor with unforgettable poignancy.

Review: 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

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Title: JOHN HENRY DAYS
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication Date: 2001
Binding: Hardcover
Book Condition: Fine
Edition: 1st Edition

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