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John Henry Days Paperback – May 14, 2002

3.5 out of 5 stars 48 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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 the Hardcover edition.

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 the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 385 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; Reprint edition (May 14, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385498209
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385498203
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (48 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #39,860 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Lonya VINE VOICE on July 11, 2001
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I approached John Henry Days with some trepidation. I enjoyed Whitehead's first novel, The Intuitionist, and thought it could harken the arrival of a strong and enduring literary career. Second novels are challenging, both for the author and for the reader. The author is challenged to live up to the promise of his/her first work. The reader is challenged by virtue of his/her own heightened expectation and anticipation that the second work will outstrip the qualities of the first novel. Whitehead has met his challenge with ease. John Henry Days stands on its own as a great and compelling read. The book also met this reader's challenge. John Henry Days exceeded my heightened expectations. The book's 'big picture' involves the ongoing, primordial struggle between humanity and technology. The big picture is presented through the prism of John Henry's 19th century battle against the soulldless steam drill and J. Sutter's inner struggle to survive in the souless world of frelance, junketeering oriented writing in the 21st century. The book is layered and textured through time. The juxtaposition, in the hands of Whitehead works exceedingly well. His writing and prose style is superb. There were some pargraphs that I read two or three times in order to savor better their flavor. Well done Colson.
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Format: Hardcover
This intriguing book succeeded in capturing my imagination, but wasn't the type of book I could really savor. Whitehead has reached far and wide, deconstructing a number of accounts to create a montage, or a stamp collection if you will, of John Henry Days. The premise was simple enough. A rat pack of free-lance writers covering the inaugural day celebration of the newest commemorative stamp issued by the post office. One black reporter stood out like a sore thumb, and we are reminded a little too much of this. A few other blacks were sprinkled into this tale set in a remote West Virginia town which still eats Wonder bread. Fortunately, Whitehead didn't stick to convenient racial stereotypes. Instead, he used this town to represent Middle America, which J had to navigate if he was going to come out with a story, and keep his "streak" alive.
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.
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Format: Hardcover
Whitehead is a writer who obviously finds enormous joy in writing, and it's such fun to participate in that joy with him! Ebullient and absolutely irrepressible, he recreates the ambience of a West Virginia county fair being held in 1996 to celebrate the issuance of a new stamp honoring John Henry, the legendary black miner who beat the steam drill, then collapsed and died. Talcott and Hinton, twin towns in rural West Virginia, are hoping the publicity and their enthusiastic efforts to promote John Henry will generate tourism to help their depressed economy.

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.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
John Henry Days has received so much attention lately (loved by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, as examples), so much so that I had to run right out and buy the hardcover. Does the novel live up to the hype. Yes, yes, definitely yes. There is so much to rave about in this novel. Whitehead writes like a dream. Each sentence is a work of art, and those sentences add up to a great story filled with uniquely believable characters, witty dialog and observations and an interesting story. J. Sutter is a journalist, a junketeer, taking up every invitation he receives to attend a free conference to cover whatever needs coverage. This time, it is John Henry Days, the celebration of a new postage stamp, in a West Virginia town where John Henry's legend is said to originate. The world and his job are beating J. down, just as John Henry's world and his job beat him down. But this time, it's not as obvious as grueling physical labor, instead it's the day to day grind of the junketeer's life. Whereas John Henry's world was obviously killing him, J.'s world is much more subtle. But J. has hope, whereas, we'll never know whether the legendary John Henry did. The novel juxtaposes tragedy with humor, bittersweet sadness with hopeful optimism. It embraces much of what it is to be American, as seen from J.'s perspective. All in all, a well told tale with much to recommend.
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