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What a wonderful find and a generally unknown mystery for most West Virginians. In "John Henry Days" we have a local story (Talcott is just 20 miles down river from me), a WV tale, and one of the finest and most accessible Postmodernist novels ever written. I have been reading and rereading the novel for a while now and it has been an immense pleasure each time. It is a work of tremendous detail on human existence.
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." "Hmm."
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!
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.
Amazing novel: part exploration of folklore, part mystery novel, part love story, part lyric poem. All of those jumbled together. Brilliantly written. Whitehead is one of the great writers of our time.
I've been a fan of Colson Whitehead since hearing him review another of his books at the AWP Convention in DC. In this book he has used a fictional character to make points regarding the treatment of black people..in the last 100 years.
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. He's a "serious fiction writer" that anyone can and should enjoy.
"John Henry Days" is a comedy, of sorts. A tale of freelance journalists dealing with, what would turn out to be, the early death spiral of print magazines giving way to the internet. The main character, J. Sutter, is hoping to set a record for consecutive days on expense accounts while covering a new festival based on the legendary railroadman, John Henry. Written half as a novel, half as a dramatic retelling of the legend, Whitehead maintains the humor throughout with a sense of unease running underneath the occasionally dark sarcasm. The 400 pages will fly by for most as the mysterious feeling throughout pulls you along like a steam engine.