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John Henry Days Paperback – May 14, 2002
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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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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.
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top Customer Reviews
But this is not a traditional novel, and we find out in the first twenty pages that a catastrophic killing spree occurs during the festivities, probably ending those hopes. In just a few more pages, we also know who the shooter is, and there are still more than 300 pages to go! Filling these pages are a cast of characters ranging from John Henry himself to his modern alterego, J. Sutter, a "junketeer"/freelance writer covering John Henry Days, along with postal employees, representatives of publicity firms, collectors of memorabilia, researchers into John Henry's life, songwriters, stamp collectors, and local "experts" and politicians. These provide Whitehead with innumerable venues for gentle satire, moments of warmth and sensitivity, and a serious exploration of themes.
More a meditation on race, the growth of legends, the role of the press, and the lure of dreams than a narrative, the novel is almost plotless, yet I found it an absolute delight to read, a book hard to put down, filled with moving and eloquent scenes that echo long after the book is finished. This is largely due to Whitehead's humor and his obvious goal of entertaining his readers, despite his weighty themes.Read more ›
The best scenes in my mind were those that played with the John Henry theme more closely. The others seemed to be flights of fancy. Inticing sometimes, but straying wide of the mark on other occasions. Whitehead seemed to have taken Ellison's "Invisible Man" from his underground chamber and brought him to light in a comtemporary setting. John Henry Days seemed like the perfect foil, but Whitehead didn't go very far beyond character sketches. This novel read like a reporter's notebook, a novel in progress, not a full length work of fiction. As such, it left me a little disappointed.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Whitehead breaks down some everyday events into incredible detail with great insight into how people REALLY think. Read morePublished 7 days ago by chairbarry
Amazing novel: part exploration of folklore, part mystery novel, part love story, part lyric poem. All of those jumbled together. Brilliantly written. Read morePublished 3 months ago by T. Holland
Very great read. It is a dense book though. Had to read it for my African American Literature classPublished 3 months ago by Kynedy G.
I've been a fan of Colson Whitehead since hearing him review another of his books at the AWP Convention in DC. Read morePublished 4 months ago by Amazon Customer
An amazing deconstruction and reconstruction of the John Henry folktale and songs. Post modern in construction it captures not only the past but modern realities and simulacrum as... Read morePublished 4 months ago by David Kunin
Colson Whitehead is one of the best writers of the new millennium. His writing style is distinctive, entertaining, and artistic without ever getting academically erudite. Read morePublished 12 months ago by Amazon Customer
I was really disappointed as I very much liked the Intuitionist. I planned to give this as a present to someone, but first I wanted to read it. Read morePublished 14 months ago by suefein