Colson Whitehead's second novel posits a folk antihero for the information age: junketeer and puff-piece-writing man J. Sutter. For his latest assignment, this freelance hack is sent to Talcott, West Virginia, to cover its John Henry Days festival and the unveiling of the United States Postal Service's John Henry stamp. Sutter hasn't devoted much thought to American mythology lately, or to the epic struggle of man vs. machine, or to anything else besides padding his expense account and cadging free drinks. Still, our hero is engaged in a private contest of his own--a kind of junket jag, in which he plans to attend a public relations event every single day. Alas, this journalistic obstacle course threatens to eradicate Sutter's soul, just as the folkloric steam shovel eradicated John Henry's body. Whitehead cuts back and forth between eras and exploits. And what begins as a media-saturated satire soon turns into a jazzy, expansive meditation on man, machine, nature, race, history, myth, and pop culture--in short, on America, as expressed through the story of (who else?) a former slave.
Following on the heels of Whitehead's widely praised debut, The Intuitionist, John Henry Days won't disappoint anyone who delighted in the first book's wonderfully quirky writing or its complex allegories of race. The historical set pieces here dazzle, and the author casts a withering eye on our media-driven culture: "Since the days of Gutenberg, an ambient hype wafted the world, throbbing and palpitating. From time to time, some of that material cooled, forming bodies of dense publicity." Still, these brilliant parts don't necessarily add up to a satisfying whole. Whitehead writes the kind of smart, allusive, highly wrought prose that is impressive sentence by sentence. Over the course of 400 pages, though, it can be somewhat daunting. It's a bit like eating a meal in which each of the seven courses comes topped with hollandaise sauce. Worse, some of the characters' motivations remain abstract, as if the author hovered so far above his creations that their foibles struck him as simple absurdities. In a novel of this caliber, of course, much can be forgiven. But one is eager to see Whitehead quit riffing and make an emotional investment in his characters. The result will be fiction that engages the heart as well as the head. --Mary Park
From Library Journal
Whitehead's (The Intuitionist) second novel is an introspective character study surrounding the legend of folk hero John Henry. A John Henry festival in a small West Virginia town draws a diverse crowd, including J. Sutter, a freelance writer going from one event to another in search of free food and paid expenses; and Pamela Street, a restless woman grieving for her father. Both are forced to reevaluate their lives, brought together by bonds of race and history. The author has tried to make this novel an epic saga by filling it with cameo characters and vignettes tracing the history of John Henry's legend and the song that sprang from it, but they are too one-dimensional for the reader to care. Too many characters and a forced writing style make this an unremarkable work about wasted lives and superficial people. Recommended for large libraries only, or those who own the author's previous work. Ellen Flexman, Indianapolis-Marion Cty. P.L.
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