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John Henry Days
"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 the highly anticipated follow-up to his critically revered The Intuitionist, Whitehead introduces J. Sutter, junketeer extraordinaire, who has come to Talcott, West Virginia, to write an article about the first annual John Henry Days festival. Jaded, road-weary, and hyperconscious of his race among hillside Confederate flags, J.'s weekend adventure supplies the primary forward track of Colson Whitehead's second novel, as well as a platform from which to satirize the American media's servitude to capitalist enterprise and the public's eagerness to swallow its pitches whole. Throughout these scenes, Whitehead shifts seamlessly between biting social commentary and outrageous humor. And Whitehead asks plenty of his readers. Repeatedly, new characters appear only to withdraw five pages later; J.'s visit to Talcott plods forward only bit by bit, tunneling through the immovable rock of history and hearsay the John Henry legend has become. A reader might become impatient if not for the spectacular prose. Sentence after sentence, Whitehead simply blasts new life out of the language. John Henry Days is either a remarkable historical novel, an illuminating counterpoint of Reconstruction Then and Now, or spot-on contemporary satire, depending where you look. Dave, Powells.com
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
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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