Colson Whitehead: John Henry Days

Colson Whitehead: John Henry Days

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John Henry Days

Author: Colson Whitehead
Publisher: Doubleday

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With his debut novel, The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead easily earned comparisons to Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison. His tale of elevator inspectors in a world where elevator science had achieved a strange cultural primacy made sense of a surreal scenario, and by the book's finish, Whitehead's coded machinations translated into a pointed message about race and America. John Henry Days tackles an only slightly less unusual subject. J. Sutter, a hack freelance journalist from New York, heads down to West Virginia to cover the unveiling of a new postage stamp portraying black railroad legend John Henry, who bested a steam-powered drill with his own hammer, only to die in the process. Soon, it becomes apparent that Sutter, too, is inadvertently going for some sort of record: coasting along from junket to junket at the expense of publicists. At first, Whitehead seems like he might have it in him to match The Intuitionist's ingenious allegory, but before long, John Henry Days already appears to be running in place, short on the grand themes needed to sustain its overreaching narrative, and long on pop-culture references that come off as pedantic filler. It remains unclear whether Whitehead intended to promote Sutter as the sad antithesis of a black folk hero like John Henry, or whether he sees his protagonist's insignificant and passive quest as a legitimate parallel. Under the former scenario, the book could be read as a damning portrayal of a dwindling or diffuse black identity, so assimilated that even its cultural myths, once passed on from generation to generation, have faded away. But Whitehead never makes his point clear; he even seems to encourage readers to abandon all attempts at analysis, chalking the whole endeavor up to a mildly satiric goof with hints of autobiographical verisimilitude. Whitehead also gives the game away early, making it easy to anticipate the novel's foregone conclusion, in a strategy serving to deflate suspense rather than inflate it. Writers like Don DeLillo or Ellison are powerful because they produce a sense that something is really at stake in their stories. With John Henry Days, Whitehead can't quite drum up the requisite excitement. Sutter obviously has a chip on his shoulder, but by all accounts, it should weigh a lot more than John Henry Days conveys.

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