Divine Hammer

In his sprawling new novel, John Henry Days, Colson Whitehead chips away at the legends of the 20th Century

Colson Whitehead is a novelist who knows the score. Though these days he sits for profiles and waits for the reviews to roll in, he was once on the other side of the journalistic tracks, writing pieces for the Village Voice. So when, 70 pages into his new novel (John Henry Days, Doubleday), Whitehead proposes a system for classifying magazine chatter, an "Anatomy of Puff," he's cocking an arrow at his old tribe. The system goes like this: Given the "archetypal subject Bob," a clever hack can spin one of five stories, each commanding "its own distinct stock phrases and hyperbolic rhetoric."

My favorite is number four, "Bob Is Hip," the trend piece. Whitehead explains:

 

Say Bob is a ukulele-playing gent who wears sunglasses on stage. If the evidence warrants, and even if it doesn't, Bob the ukulele-playing sunglasses-wearing gent can be insinuated within a burgeoning scene of ukulele-playing sunglasses-wearers--they have a culture and slang, they all sleep together, the romantic entanglements internecine. It is an exotic subculture that begs further exploration.

 

It's riffs like the Anatomy of Puff that make Whitehead's second novel a sort of viscous pleasure, and by choosing a freelance journalist (a.k.a. a "junketeer") as his protagonist, he opens the door to innumerable media riffs, jokes, critiques, and exposés. J. Sutter is a black New York native who "likes to keep his obligations to meeting the word count" and whose only faith is in "the holy inviolability of the receipt, two dollars a word, travel expenses." J. is going for the junketeer record, trying to hit at least one media event every day for a year. It is this quest that leads him to the unlikely town of Talcott, West Virginia, and its three-day festival to celebrate the issue of a new John Henry postage stamp, which commemorates the legend of the African-American steel driver who died, hammer in hand, after triumphantly racing a steam-powered drill that threatened to take his job. (The town, of course, wants to parlay Henry's memory into a lucrative, annual spectacle, complete with John Henry miniatures, T-shirts, mugs, and squishy, Nerf-like hammers.)

In true postmodern style, Whitehead mixes fact and fiction to present the John Henry folktale from dozens of angles. There are versions of the (real) railroad ballads that originally conveyed the tale. There are (fake) excerpts from (fake) philately journals speculating on the (real) stamp's worth. Four hauntingly written chapters imagine the (possibly real) life of John Henry himself: listening to other railroad workers wager on his contest ("He heard voices raised in anger and then the scrambling sound of men in the dirt fighting. There was more than money on the line."), gazing at a mountain before he goes to die ("The treetops stretched with their little points, like a million fingers grasping at Heaven"). Other chapter-long digressions veer into the lives of Henry-affected museum owners, academics, musicians, composers, and children.

Whitehead's asides seem to have peeved a lot of reviewers, but the book would lose much of its resonance without them: In these sections he molds the John Henry folktale into a parable for American industry, turning it into a kind of dark vision of the American work ethic that could be dubbed, after one of Whitehead's section headings, "The Steeldriving Theory of Life." If Whitehead's first novel, The Intuitionist, was widely celebrated as "the freshest racial allegory since Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man" (Time), his second both deals with race relations and aims beyond them. Yes, John Henry's is the plight of the ex-slave forced into lung-killing labor, but it's also the plight of the small man fighting a big machine, and Whitehead ties Henry not only to J. the junketeer but also, briefly, to Jake the Jewish composer. Black or white, the characters in his digressions are all cogs driving against some kind of machine. The publicity machine. The academic machine. The race machine. The middle-class machine. The industrial machine. The information machine.

None of them are sure they'll make it.

If this review fits J. Sutter's puff category number two, "Bob's Return"--i.e., the critique of Bob's sophomore attempt--I'm afraid one of the stock phrases, "somehow lacking," does apply. For all its gorgeous prose, well-executed set pieces, and mordant media barbs, John Henry Days is sometimes a slog of a read. The problem, however, isn't the digressions; it's not even the fact that the book's technical back flips don't always land with a perfect ten. The flaw is Whitehead's attempt to cobble a murder-mystery plot onto the essentially internal story of J.'s three-day junket. As J. moves from festival event to motel to festival event, as he cracks cynical jokes with his fellow junketeers, as he cautiously courts a lonely woman, as he despairs over the shallowness of his life, as he steels himself to pursue the record--at every turn Whitehead places the hovering figure of a gun-toting stamp collector, the least convincing character in the book.

We know from page 20 onward that the Talcott festival ends in a shooting, but the drums of foreshadowing feel as awkward and unsuspenseful as the slow descent of a creaky deus ex machina. It's almost as if Whitehead didn't trust that he could make J.'s struggle powerful without hanging some ax over his head. But the real ax is the corrupting power of puff. And in the book's best parts, Whitehead shines a spotlight on its looming blade.

 
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