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John Henry Days Paperback – May 14, 2002
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“A narrative tour de force that astonishes on almost every page.” —Time
“Does what writing should do; it refreshes our sense of the world. . . . An ambitious, finely chiseled work.” —John Updike, The New Yorker
“John Henry Days is funny and wise and sumptuously written...compelling.” —Jonathan Franzen, The New York Times Book Review
“[Whitehead] takes on a multitude of issues with a rich and probing imagination.His reputation is likely to soar.” —Ishmael Reed, The Washington Post Book World
“A feast for famished readers.” —Newsweek
From the Inside Flap
Colson Whitehead's eagerly awaited and triumphantly acclaimed new novel is on one level a multifaceted retelling of the story of John Henry, the black steel-driver who died outracing a machine designed to replace him. On another level it's the story of a disaffected, middle-aged black journalist on a mission to set a record for junketeering who attends the annual John Henry Days festival. It is also a high-velocity thrill ride through the tunnel where American legend gives way to American pop culture, replete with p. r. flacks, stamp collectors, blues men, and turn-of-the-century song pluggers. John Henry Days is an acrobatic, intellectually dazzling, and laugh-out-loud funny book that will be read and talked about for years to come.
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Like all great Postmodernist novels it is an unrepentant criticism of Late Capitalism and its commodization of the human spirit. Utilizing the history of the John Henry legend, Whitehead offers a critical analysis of capitalism's exploitation of labor from the Gilded Age of the 19th century to the fin de siecle of the 20th century. While the author does maintain a subplot of the issue of race in economics, the main focus is exploitation of the arts and its role in a free market. He traces this from the early period of musical commodification of sheet music to records to Broadway plays and the same with the field of writing in the realm of publicity and marketing with the rise of the Internet.
Colson also injects the concept of perspective as a multiplicity. John Henry is seen through the eyes of the locals, the Washingtonian bureaucracy, the New York marketing apparachiks, and the American mythos. This faceted gaze is also turned to West Virginia and its own place in our nation's collective conscience:
"These little telling details."
"And you see those dents on the statue? People come around and use it for target practice. One time they chained the statue to a pickup and dragged it off the pedestal down the road here. Then the statue fell off and they drove off so they found it next day just lying in the road."
"Probably not much to do here on a Saturday night."
What does this short conversation between the two principal African American characters tell us about the history of race in our country and the echos of Southern lynchings it creates in our minds? Or is Whitehead reminding us that we are all just objects of entertainment, objects of utility? Are we all just doomed to die "with a hammer in our hands"?
Unlike the novel, John Henry Days is a real event held at Talcott in Summers County WV each year on the second weekend in July. It is as wholesome a piece of Americana as Colson portrays it in his prose. So grab the book and come set a-spell!
Colson Whitehead, who apparently knows the junketeering life well, performs dazzlingly. There are sequences that will make you want to put down the book and applaud his wordsmithery. Most of the jazz-riff-like setpieces are brilliant (the one in which receipt-collecting, free-riding Sutter remotely dials up his answer-machine messages from his WVA model is a standalone masterpiece) although Mr. Sutter's editor probably should have urged him to lose the wife of the hotel owner who sees ghosts and the interminable county fair scenes that tell us nothing new about county fairs. But you can skim through those quickly and painlessly and go on to the next riff, which you're odds-on to enjoy immensely.
There's a big "but," though: when you reach the final pages, maybe you'll feel that something is missing. Mr. Whitehead's technique is dazzling, alright, but he seems not to have much of an idea of overall form or any sort of pacing. Everything comes at you in the same way and at the same speed. It's like watching the act of a juggler who is an expert at keeping all the clubs in the air, but has no idea how to build the act to some kind of grand finale; and so instead at the end he simply plucks all of his clubs out of the air one by one, takes his bow, and leaves the stage.