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Powells.com
Monday, June 18th, 2001


 

John Henry Days

by Colson Whitehead

A review by Dave Weich

Talcott, West Virginia, is the site of the first annual John Henry Days festival, celebrating the U. S. Postal Service's new Folk Heroes stamp series, among whose four figures is none other than John Henry, the nineteenth century black laborer reputed to have defeated a steam engine in a steel-driving contest here only to die from exhaustion before he could celebrate the victory. Freelance journalists have descended on the tiny Appalachian town to pen fluff pieces about the festivities for whichever sources will print them and, of more immediate interest, to mooch off the expense accounts afforded by their assignments.

J. Sutter, junketeer extraordinaire, has come to write an article for a new travel web site. 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. He's particularly hilarious when addressing the freeloading writers and the publicity engine that drives their work.

Yet perhaps only half of the novel follows the events of the festival weekend. The balance is built upon short sections wherein Whitehead confronts the John Henry myth directly, via both recreations of work scenes on the C&O Railroad's Big Bend Tunnel project and brief portraits of lives somehow touched by the legend: a Chicago bluesman for whom the hero's ballad provides a first opportunity to record on vinyl, a crack addict eighty years later deliriously singing the chorus, a reclusive collector of John Henry memorabilia whose museum boasts the largest collection of pieces in the world yet never once attracts a visitor.

In the highly anticipated follow-up to his critically revered The Intuitionist, 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 the year's most spot-on contemporary satire, depending where you look.


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