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John Henry Days Hardcover – Import, 15 May 2001

4.1 out of 5 stars 74 ratings

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Product description

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

From Booklist

Whitehead's accomplished debut, The Intuitionist (1998), earned him a Whiting Writers' Award, and he now presents an even more sagacious tale, an inventive, funny, and bittersweet inquiry into the significance of folk hero John Henry. An African American rail worker who allegedly triumphed over a steam-powered drill in a contest of man against machine only to die on the spot in a dramatic foreshadowing of the impact of the Industrial Revolution, Henry is the subject of a 1996 commemorative stamp that is about to be unveiled at an elaborate celebration in Talcott, West Virginia. A gaggle of sharp-tongued, mercenary New York hacks are on the scene, including J. Sutter. The only black writer present, he is staging a contest of his own by going for a record of back-to-back press junkets. Also in attendance is Pamela Street, whose late father obsessively collected John Henry memorabilia. Looping back in time, Whitehead brings John Henry himself into the mix, as well as an intriguing set of characters inspired by his story, including the creator of "The Ballad of John Henry" and Paul Robeson, who played John Henry on Broadway. Masterfully composed and full of myth and magic, Whitehead's great American novel considers such dualities as nature and civilization, legend and history, black and white, and altruism and greed, while deftly skewering the absurdities of the information age. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product details

  • Publisher : Doubleday (15 May 2001)
  • Language : English
  • Hardcover : 400 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 0385498195
  • ISBN-13 : 978-0385498197
  • Item Weight : 454 g
  • Dimensions : 16.36 x 3.25 x 24.21 cm
  • Country of Origin : USA
  • Customer Reviews:
    4.1 out of 5 stars 74 ratings

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