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The New Republic Online
Thursday, August 16th, 2001


 

John Henry Days

by Colson Whitehead

Virtual Prose

A review by James Wood

I.
So it has happened: Underworld, the most diffusely influential American novel of recent years, has begun to deliver nameable kin. John Henry Days, an extravagantly ambitious novel by the talented young writer Colson Whitehead, is an African American version of Don DeLillo's novel, attempting, like that book, to puzzle out a shattered epic from American life and history. It has many of the virtues and the defects of that earlier work; but it lacks, alas, its lucid, coherent intelligence, and it quite lacks the composure of DeLillo's often distinguished prose.

The fastest way to irritate the lions of late postmodernism is to deny them their meat — that is, to make the obvious point that Underworld is really an old-fashioned Dickensian novel, a Bleak House of the digital age, which attempts to evoke, in great detail, the interconnectedness of society. It may stream with riffs and essaylets about paranoia, the bomb, J. Edgar Hoover, the poetics of garbage, and so on; but it subscribes to the realistic, even naturalistic belief in novelistic evidence, in the idea that in order to demonstrate something it must be lavishly shown. Thus, since DeLillo believes in some vague, subterranean way that baseball and paranoia and the bomb all connect, he must write a baseball scene at which J. Edgar Hoover is somewhere in the crowd, he must tell us that Bobby Thomson's home run appeared on the same New York Times front page as the news that the Russians had detonated their first nuclear bomb in Kazakhstan, and he must follow all this, a hundred or so pages later, with a scene in which a fanatical collector of baseball memorabilia informs us (conveniently enough) that the radioactive core of an atomic bomb is "the exact same size as a baseball."

This naturalism, sometimes persuasive and sometimes a little primitive, this antique massiveness — as if a giant were shuffling historical billboards and thrusting them at us — bloats novelistic form. It pushes the book toward the garrulous and the wasteful. It tends also to the sociological and the didactic, since individuals can never be as powerful as the historical and political forces that, as Underworld has been so heavily demonstrating, shape them. DeLillo insists on connections (the atomic bomb is somehow connected to JFK's assassination and to American paranoia) as Dickens's plots insist on connections (wills, lost relatives, distant benefactors, and so on). But unlike the world of Dickens, in Underworld there are no connections at the human level, because there are no human beings in the novel, no single individual who absolutely matters and whose consciousness matters absolutely to himself.

DeLillo has said that he writes novels about "the inner life of the culture." But can you write novels about the inner life of the culture without writing about the inner life of characters? Thus the paranoid filiations that DeLillo finds in American society of the last fifty years turn out to be almost entirely conceptual; the novel simply claims this set of rather impressive connections. Yet Underworld still believes, naturalistically and old-fashionedly, in evidence. And what is the evidence? The evidence is the form of the book itself, in which everything is repetitively made to connect with everything else. The form of the novel insists: this is how it is.

Broadly, John Henry Days shares the form of Underworld; and like it, Whitehead's book is really a didactic novel that wants to be honored for not being so. It constructs, out of many varied scenes and characters, a fictional mural of contemporary and historical American life; and — as in Underworld — a vast magnet sits at the absent center of this mural, drawing all the scenes and characters to itself. It is July 1996, and the town of Talcott, West Virginia has decided to honor its nineteenth-century black hero, John Henry, with a John Henry weekend. (The story is loosely based on an actual John Henry event, held in Talcott in 1996.) The U.S. Postal Service will issue a John Henry stamp in Talcott, finally marking the memory of the superhumanly strong man who worked for the Chesapeake and Ohio railroad, and who, it is said, competed with and defeated a steam drill one day in 1872, only to die a few minutes after his victory.

The novel concerns itself with some of the visitors to Talcott's celebration, and moves freely between them with confident omniscience. We encounter J. Sutter, the book's protagonist, a black freelance journalist, actually a cynical hack, from New York. He and a gang of equally cynical journalistic colleagues meet in Talcott to cover the event. They are called the junketeers, because they move from one publicity event to another, living off free drinks and meals, taking trips on the tabs of various publications, and fiddling expenses, sometimes by submitting stolen receipts.

Whitehead's satire of these knights of negative faith is often funny and inventive, though he prolongs a mock-heroic tone far too long, over hundreds of pages:

They turn to see Tiny and Frenchie, two fellow mercenaries in their covert war against the literate of America. Hail, hail. They encounter each other on the newsstands, they chafe against one another in the contributors' notes of glossy magazines, but primarily they meet like this, on the eve of war, hungry, sniffing comps and gratis, these things like smoke from a freebie battlefield on the other side of morning. At stake: the primal American right of free speech, the freedom, without fear of censor, to beguile, confuse and otherwise distract the people into plodding obeisance of pop. Their ideals: the holy inviolability of the receipt, two dollars a word, travel expenses. The junketeers are soldiers, and they hail each other.

Whitehead's satire is aimed at these journalists, and they excite some of his best writing and some of his worst. For now, it will be enough to note the slightly determined liveliness in the passage above, and its repetitiveness ("mercenaries...eve of war...freebie battlefield...soldiers" — surely time for an armistice on the war metaphors, no?), and the relentlessness of the mock-heroic tone, and the way the prose is dartingly foxed by incoherence: what does it mean to compare "comps and gratis" (itself a peculiar conjoining of a noun and an adjective, somewhat akin to writing "riches and poor") to "smoke from a freebie battlefield on the other side of morning"? What is "the other side of morning"?

Other guests include Pamela Street, a Brooklyn woman whose late father was obsessed with John Henry, and who had an enormous collection of John Henry memorabilia (reminiscent of Marvin Lundy, the collector of baseball memorabilia in Underworld); Alphonse Miggs, a shy stamp collector from Bethesda, Maryland, who has his own, sinister plans for the event; and Lucien Joyce, a p.r. chief from Manhattan who has organized most of the weekend. Whitehead pans — the cinematic image is apt — between these people, in short scenes of only a few pages at a time. In addition, as his story of the weekend in Talcott progresses, he moves backward every so often, into personal and collective memory: he fills us in on J. Sutter's early days at The Downtown News — a very loyal, not to say velvet-veiled, portrait of The Village Voice; and also on Pamela Street's crazed father; and then further back still to the middle-class Harlem childhood of J. Sutter's mother, Jennifer. The novel also splices a short chapter set inside the head of Paul Robeson, who briefly played John Henry on stage.

What else? For no obvious reason, one of the junketeers tells the story, which takes fourteen pages, of the Stones's murderous Altamont concert in 1969. We encounter Guy Johnson, a real-life black historian, who visited West Virginia in the 1920s, and wrote a book in 1929 called John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend (it is cited in the acknowledgments). We spend a few pages with Moses, a black singer seen performing in Chicago, who sometimes sang a ballad of John Henry. (These pages remind one a little of the passages in Underworld in which DeLillo novelized Lenny Bruce on stage.) Most importantly, scattered throughout the novel, again in short excerpts, is a novelized evocation of John Henry himself, and his path toward his momentous struggle with the steam drill.

John Henry Days is daring, nervy, knowing, and smart. Like 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!"

Narratively, the novel is chronically restless. It is not just that we are bounced from Talcott in 1996 to Talcott in 1872, back to 1996 again, then to Harlem in the 1940s, or to Talcott in the 1920s, and so on; or that we move every ten or so pages from character to character. It is also that the novel varies its modes of storytelling: turn the page and the reader may leave Talcott to overhear a three-page conversation, laid out as a film script, between two postal workers in a bar in Washington, D.C.; or may read an imagined press release from the U.S. Postal Service, announcing the issue of the John Henry stamp; or may come upon a two-page chapter of legalese about the regulations concerning gun ownership in Maryland; or may inhabit, for a chapter, the life of the nineteeenth-century owner of the C&O Railroad.

Whitehead's book is at once wildly centrifugal and dogmatically centripetal. For although the plot moves outwards, continually fattening itself on new historical textures, almost every scene exists to dress a single theme: the novel's inquiry into the John Henry myth and its place in American life. Musicologists, singers, hobbyists, journalists, public relations flacks: they all revolve around John Henry. Even the chapter about J. Sutter's mother, set in Harlem in the 1940s, which is one of the best passages in the book, builds to a moment in which the little girl tries to play "The Ballad of John Henry" on the piano, and is rebuked by her genteel mother for playing "gutter music." There is barely a page in the book that does not mention John Henry.

This DeLillo-like level of connectedness gives John Henry Days a paranoid form, even though the novel is not about paranoia. The John Henry story is, in effect, the novel's organizing "Underworld," its political unconscious. John Henry penetrates everything here, as the bomb penetrates everything in Underworld. The effect is somewhat imprisoning, somewhat didactic; this is a themed novel, and even its moments of free and properly gratuitous life are finally brought back, by the structure of the book's form, to the mighty monad of its theme. The reader finds himself, once a new chapter has begun, living not so much in the free life of the characters as waiting for the inevitable moment when John Henry will make his inexorable thematic entrance.

It cannot be said that Whitehead's characters have much depth of life. They are lively — Whitehead allows his characters plenty of cleverness, so that his conversation often glitters — and enlivened by a generous comic spirit. But they are awarded little more than the characteristics essential to their roles in the allegory. The junketeers, as you would imagine, are cynical, knowing, shallow, verbal; Pamela Street, having been introduced as the victim of her father's obsession, stays "in character," insofar as she has one, for the rest of the book; Alphonse Miggs, the sinister stamp collector, is exactly that and nothing more; Lucien, the p.r. chief, spends the whole novel imagining life as a series of p.r. exercises. Fictively, this is very much the kind of universe in which a truck driver will think continually of trucks. Whitehead's people are defined sociologically, which is to say, allegorically; it would be very hard to describe one of these characters, were you to rob him of his occupation or hobby, or were you to take him away from the subject of John Henry.

This is not necessarily a weakness, at least not in this kind of novel: caricature, a bright blot of stable essence, can be a way of sticking to the point, and allegories need to exclude distraction. John Henry Days is, all in all, an interestingly typical, almost canonically contemporary American novel (though, to be fair, it is untypical in its intelligence and its scope); its mode is essentially allegorical; its concerns are social, historical, and linguistic (rather than characterological, aesthetic, and metaphysical); its fractured but connected pieces suggest an interest in the amassing of a web of information, a network of different knowledges; and its prose — which is always performing, present-tensed, sharp-sloppy, a kind of jolie laide mixture of the ugly and the pert — borrows freely from journalistic and technical discourses, and spills itself rapidly, sometimes inundating coherence and the drier forms of lucidity on its vivacious way.

Whitehead has a gift for allegorical patterning. One of the finer qualities of his novel lies in the intelligent way he uses the noble John Henry to illuminate, and indeed to shadow, the contemporary shallowness of his hero, J. Sutter. John Henry fought a great fight with a steam drill; J. Sutter, by contrast, is only struggling to break the junketeers' record, held by a fabled colleague named Bobby Figgis. That record is nine months' junketeering — notionally, an event a day for a year, but Figgis reached only his ninth month — and Sutter has already chalked up three uninterrupted months.

As with everything relating to the junketeers, we hear too much about "the record," too much about Bobby Figgis (Bobby Figgis, who "had been devoured by pop"), and too much about a very DeLillo-like institution called "The List" (a secret list of pliable journalists maintained by the p.r. guy). Still, there is an authentic piquancy in the prospect of two so very different challenges: John Henry, free but virtually enslaved by the C&O railroad, killed but not vanquished by the machine of the new, modern industrial age; and J. Sutter, free but unwittingly enslaved by the machinery of late capitalist information, morally vanquished by a pointless struggle. The method of juxtaposition is perhaps a little obvious, a little heavily sarcastic, as befits mock-heroic comparison. It is the kind of comparison that Swift implies in one of his poems, when he makes fun of a cynical actress by calling her "a beautiful nymph." J. Sutter (his curious name hovering perhaps close to "sutler," a camp follower selling provisions to soldiers) is judged and prodded by the presence in the novel of John Henry.

Nor is the flow of judgment only one-way. Whitehead does not employ the John Henry story as mere moral chorus. There is no reflexive reverence toward the past. He uses his collage of materials — the various ballads, the 1920s historian, the Talcott celebration — to cast doubt on the stability of the nineteenth-century tale. Who knows how heroic John Henry really was? All that is certain is that the town of Talcott, West Virginia — and, by extension, America — needs to borrow the John Henry story for its own purposes. Whitehead uncoils his various ironies smartly, chief of which is the sight of poor white Appalachians, the natives of unimportant Talcott, bulking out their negligible prestige by recourse to the possibly apocryphal story of a disenfranchised black worker.

That these ironies largely run themselves, once the novel has established its mise-en-scθne, does not diminish Whitehead's skill in first mobilizing them. There is often an entrepreneurial element to the finding of a story, the patenting of a novelistic idea, as Gogol knew when he forbade his friends to mention the title of his novel in progress, for fear that it would reveal the book's secret and single idea — a single, brilliant idea, which Gogol hotly syndicates in chapter after chapter. And at certain moments in John Henry Days, as Talcott flourishes its possession of John Henry, one does indeed recall a scene in Dead Souls, in which a Russian landowner who never cared much for his serfs when they were alive becomes protective on their behalf only when they are dead.

II.
Yet Gogol wrote great prose, and Whitehead writes what might best be called interesting prose — extraordinarily uneven, and sometimes barely comprehensible, not to mention smutted with inexplicable solecisms. What most clearly distinguishes John Henry Days, what marks it as a certain kind of sophisticated, wised-up contemporary novel, is its busy, loose prose, at once highly considered — a real style — and rushingly careless. There is a curious mixture here of aestheticism and an urge to disown aestheticism; of earnestness and a fear of earnestness, accompanied by a quick scamper into the warren of irony; of literary registers (an abundance of metaphor, for instance) with harder, colder, newer discourses (sociology, new journalism, computer-speak, the vocabularies of public relations and commerce).

Whitehead's models may be various: perhaps the freaked allegorist Thomas Pynchon is somewhere behind this, perhaps DeLillo and David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers, perhaps the fogged yearnings of rock journalism and the parish poetry of the semi-literate theorists at The Village Voice (Whitehead worked as a television critic for that paper), perhaps the mad fluency and the near-modernist pulse of e-mail. Whatever the influences, Whitehead's prose seems decidedly a contemporary instance, a prose of the virtual age that is often merely virtual: imprecise, swaggering when it should be controlled, fruitlessly dense, grossly abundant.

At his best Whitehead is a good stylist, able to fuse a journalistic smartness with a properly literary attentiveness. There is a marvelous three-page description of the John Henry fair in Talcott, full of sharp details — "the grill of the Italian sausage stand resembles the floor of a garage" — and animated by a perfect equipoise of tone, at once indulgent and haughtily amused, in a caught balance not so far from Woolf's description of an English fair in Between the Acts: "the scratching of Velcro vies for attention with distant crickets." Equally, he writes with real subtlety about J. Sutter's mother in Harlem. Describing a day when the little girl goes for the first time to an alluring basement record store and then emerges into sunlight, Whitehead writes: "The sun is twice as bright once she leaves the store, until her eyes adjust again to this average world." That adjective "average" is finely chosen, and works as literature should, compressing energies into fierce units: "average" immediately tells us a great deal about the exciting strangeness, to Jennifer, of that basement shop.

Even when Whitehead is not writing at this level, and is buzzing along more journalistically, he is frequently funny and precise, and snaps easily into aphorism. Of one of the junketeers he observes: "Dave Brown's byline is a roach whose gradual infestation of the world's print media can only be sketchily documented." Dave Brown is seen, amusingly, wearing "his trademark president-for-life khaki jacket." Later Alphonse Miggs, the suburban stamp collector, is crisply introduced: "He had a good job, for example; middle management was only a better tie away."

This lucidity only makes more bemusing Whitehead's frequent unwillingness to be lucid. There are, to begin with, many snarls of sense and grammar, some of which bespeak a sleepy or over-generous editor. At the Talcott fair, for instance, Whitehead writes that "those who walk around with pebbles in their shoes and those who remove pebbles immediately form discreet groups," when he really means "discrete." At the same fair, Whitehead writes, "the baby won't fall asleep and that little song that always works isn't today," when he should write "doesn't today." At the same fair, we encounter the phrase "Lucien and the ice cream melt in the heat at deviant rates," when "divergent" is the needed word. (Deviant ice cream sounds like ad copy for Ben & Jerry's.)

Elsewhere we read: "the public is inured against [sic] such mundane crises"; "the article elaborated about [sic] a psychological need"; "he evacuated his chair" (which sounds painful). When J. Sutter goes to work at The Downtown News, he comes home eager to tell his parents what he has heard at the office: "At dinner, he reiterated some of the dialogue from Kramer's and Blumenthal's conversations." But since reiteration generally means self-repetition ("I reiterate that..."), this sentence is impossible, and has the meaning "he said again some of the dialogue." Finally: "He tapped ash on the coarse tile of the hotel Sun Deck Lounge, eschewing for reasons of his own the elegant ashtray proximate his hand" — which one might describe as a sentence proximate gibberish.

Errors are corrigible, and certainly forgivable; but error is sewn deep into the prose here, and is not easily unpicked. Alas, one suspects that some of this is considered (as, say, William T. Vollmann probably decided to mangle his subjunctives in his last novel). Take for example that phrase "Lucien and the ice cream melt in the heat at deviant rates." Whitehead might say that "deviant" is not an absolutely impossible usage, since everyone knows what he means; or he might say that it is his task to explode the idea of possibility in English, a language constantly expanding; and even if he did not say this, he would almost certainly not consider the sentence preposterous or ugly, or else he would not have written it. He wants to import that word "deviant," he wants to make the sentence sound clever, he wants the reader to stop for a moment and figure it out, and he wants the borrowed authority of a pseudo-scientific word, just as he does when he elsewhere writes of the "emphysematous gurgle" of a pool of water, or commits this sentence: "Once in a while one of them said I love you, to flat sonant agreement from the other pillow." What is important is precisely the presence of these apparently alien words — "deviant," "sonant" — and the cool technical shiver of their official discourse. The aim is to borrow the precision that a word such as "deviant" enjoys in its own discourse, and then to assault its precision in a new, looser, literary context. An aestheticism is at work, whereby any kind of word can be claimed and swallowed by style; but this is a curious version of aestheticism, for the result is not aesthetic, or even very attractive.

It is not exaggerated to call this a kind of deconstruction of the language. And for some of this Whitehead should be praised. He yearns for a prose with modern lights. He seeks edge, bustle, interruption. The language, particularly in America, can stand some turbulence. But too often this leads to very strained effects, which run away with the writer. He tends excessively to anthropomorphize his inanimate objects, apparently in order to squeeze from them as much metaphor as he can. Thus the mountains near Talcott, which have had a road driven between them, are described as "still grudgeful after all these years at their sunderance" (a truly ugly sentence), and the strip malls in West Virginia are also given personalities: "But each creation is botched and maladjusted, it will not play with the other kids or has a morbid disposition, and subsides, inevitably, into the silence of black country road."

One chapter opens with J. Sutter leaving his motel room, wearing sunglasses: "So armed, thus fortified, J. traverses the hazy border between parking lot and gravel and the half-tamed dirt of country road shoulder, a disputed area this, every rain betrays the ceasefire in a violent push, every car wheel in and out of the Talcott Motor Lodge shifts the balance of power, foreign aid." This is straightforwardly bad writing, a squabble of excess. There is an absolute loss of control and, above all, of proportion. It might be one thing for Wordsworth to consider the Simplon Pass in this manner; but it is ridiculous for Whitehead to make this much imagery out of a road shoulder. Whitehead is drawn to border imagery. Two hundred pages later he describes Pamela, who has been smoking, opening the window of her motel room: "The breeze wants into room 14 as much as the smoke wants out, and they negotiate border crossings." Again the effort races ahead of the effect.

But it is at least comprehensible. The following sentence is not: "The place mats of Herb's Country Style aspire to the perspectives of mountain divinities, bought in bulk and fixing a century of scrabbling achievement in its just form on the diaphanous paper." If you are grindingly hermeneutic, with a morning to waste, you may at last realize, after many readings, that Whitehead is telling us that the place mats have maps drawn on them (hence they "aspire to the perspectives of mountain divinities"). Yet the sentence reads like an exercise in comic periphrasis — of the children's book kind: "U is for umbrella. An umbrella is a mushroom in deep mourning that likes to wash a lot" — not least because the syntax causes one to think that it is the mountain divinities that have been bought in bulk rather than the place mats. And the editor who let this foolishness pass failed to inform Whitehead that Herb's Country Style mysteriously becomes Herb's Family Style on the next page.

One of the culprits, again, is Whitehead's mock-heroic style, and his determination to maintain it through thick and thin. This is clearly apparent in a passage in which J. Sutter recalls being out late at night in Brooklyn, in Fort Greene. Sutter is writing a piece, and has left his apartment for some beer. He is a little nervous, since, as Whitehead tells us, with comic-solemn fanfare: "The freaks come out at night." Cautiously Sutter rounds a corner, mindful of an unlit area, "where streetlights stare blindly, handicapped by vandalism and city neglect, where shadows confab to trade samizdat decrying illumination." (That anthropomorphism again. Also, the image is not only absurd, it is inconsistent: if the shadows were distributing samizdat literature decrying illumination, their samizdat would presumably be rebelling against the yoke of illumination, which would mean that the street was, in fact, brutally illuminated.)

Standing in line at the bodega, J. Sutter sees a neighborhood addict approaching: "J. sees him zigzagging down the street, stymieing snipers of euthanasiac bent who might be roosting on the Brooklyn rooftops, an out-of-control prop plane in for an uneasy landing." It is not necessary to argue the atrocity of this sentence. What is interesting is not so much its busted coherence, its anarchy of registers and metaphors, its coarse unreality, but the phrase "euthanasiac bent." Again, a mock-heroic periphrasis: a sniper is no more a euthanasiast than J. Sutter and his friends are "mercenaries" in a "covert war." Whitehead wants this tone, this clumsiness, this quasi-political glamour, even though it sometimes lends the book a sophomoric facetiousness. (This is the same book that Jonathan Franzen described in The New York Times as "sumptuously written.")

Why would Whitehead be drawn to write in this way? Not all of the blame, after all, can be laid at the door of The Village Voice, that tuneless organ, Whitehead's quondam employer. At times, as in the balancing of John Henry's struggle with J. Sutter's struggle, the satiric tone works with considerable power and delicacy. But palpably, satire is obstructing something in the case of this sentence, and in many others like it. The character of its prose always leads us to the center of a novel's meaning. In this case, the prose suggests obstruction and avoidance: Whitehead seems to be evading not just simplicity (and it is sometimes good to evade simplicity), but earnestness and truthfulness. In place of accuracy, haze; in place of silence, noise. The Brooklyn street becomes a kind of opera set, and the book a libretto. Just as snipers are not euthanasiasts, so there are no snipers on Brooklyn roofs, not even in the roughest neighborhoods. The sentence has simply ceased to refer. It is instead crying, Look at me, look at me!

T.S. Eliot once praised Lancelot Andrewes for having a style that exhibited a mastery of "relevant intensity." A great deal of contemporary American fiction by younger writers lives off the inversion of that quality: it is bursting with irrelevant intensity. One reason for this may be that the comedy of culture has begun to seem more important, more pressing, to younger writers than the comedy of character. Our culture, which seems — and is — newly frenzied, appears to demand a corresponding frenzy of response; a way of "capturing the madness of the times." Yet correspondence is not encapsulation but surrender, as suggested by the old joke about the chameleon that landed on a tartan rug and exploded. Whitehead ought to know this, for his novel is most successful when, from a stable confidence, it probes and pushes its historical material into fresh visibility. The power of the mock-heroic, of satire itself, rests on such a firm pedestal, a good base. Elsewhere, however, his wild evasions seem not satirical but actually an evasion of satire, and deeply weaken the moral form of his novel. Too often Whitehead writes an ungrounded prose, which draws uncomfortably close to the kind of writing that J. Sutter and his coevals might produce. The shame is that at such moments Whitehead loses his ability to referee between John Henry and J. Sutter, between the unstable past and the ungrounded present — and seems instead like a player on the side of the corrupted present, full of noise and irrelevant intensity.


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