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"John Henry Days" apparently means to be yet another entry into the Great American Novel Sweepstakes. And yet, it's not so much a novel as a series of set-pieces on American popular culture that intermingles imagined scenes from the life of the legendary steel-driving man, the obsessions of collectors, and scenes from late-20th-century pop culture (the novel is set in July 1996 at a "John Henry Days" festival in West VA--and not so coincidentally at the moment when the dotcom startups were begining to start up). The modern sequences feature a black freelance journalist, J. Sutter, who wants to set a record for junketeering while denying to his writer pals that this is what he is doing. 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.
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.
The reader will find very original and perceptive descriptions of people, situations and inanimate object. A quirky, but somehow believable plot with great 3-D characters. The only problem I had with the book were some sections that seemed to drag on way too long but didn't necessarily carry the story forward.
Whitehead has a really distinctive and bitingly insightful voice. The narration style is a little odd to allow his voice to shine through an omniscient third person narrator, but it comes off enjoyable and full of quips that drive to the heart of America these days. Sarcastic, brutal, upfront, and unforgiving, "John Henry Days" explores issues of race, commercialism, history-making, and regionalism in a refreshing way. By weaving multiple stories together, Whitehead creates a cross-historical narrative, merging the present events and the tales of John Henry into one messy postmodern mythology that is as fun to read as it is enlightening.
This was a required reading for an African American Literature course. I didn't know what to expect. I found it extremely well written. The character development was very good. The author really got inside the black culture and what it means to be African American in the South.