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John Henry Daysby Colson Whitehead
Finalist for the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award
"John Henry Days is daring, nervy, knowing, and smart. Like [DeLillo's] Underworld, it is a bristle of bricolage; but unlike that book, it gives off, despite its bulk, a curious fear of longevity, of entanglement. Its mode is generally filmic ? the rapidity of cutting seems more important than the depth of scenes, as if Whitehead were continually saying to himself, "Keep it moving, keep it moving!" James Wood, The New Republic (read the entire New Republic review)
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"John Henry Days is funny and wise and sumptuously written....Again and again, you hit passages of wry and largehearted descriptive prose that are the clearest measure of Whitehead's achievement and promise as a writer." Jonathan Franzen, New York Times Book Review
Colson Whiteheads 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 its 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.
About the Author
Colson Whitehead was born in New York City. His first novel, The Intuitionist, won the QPB New Voices Award and was an Ernest Hemingway/PEN Award finalist. He is also the recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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