what i'm reading: john henry days, by colson whitehead

Here I am again, gushing about another novel by Colson Whitehead. For my last grab at pleasure reading before trudging back to my grad-school cell, I went back to the only book by Whitehead - fiction and nonfiction - that I hadn't read: John Henry Days, published in 2001 and shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. I don't know why I didn't read this book when it first came out, since I loved Whitehead's debut novel, The Intuitionist. And once again, a novel by this man knocks me out.

On the surface, this book combines two central stories. One is set in the present, as a pop journalist, purveyor of PR fluff disguised as articles, visits the town of Talcott, West Virginia, for the first annual John Henry Days Festival. The other story is set in the distant past: a historical-fiction imagining of John Henry, a recently emancipated African American labourer, one of many doing the world's most dangerous work, just a whisper away from slavery.

Also in the present or the recent past or a fictional past, we meet an obsessive collector of John Henry memorabilia, and his daughter. An eccentric collector of railroad stamps. A small town fair. The Chicago blues scene. A railroad magnate's opium dreams. A small-town hotel owner's paranormal experiences. A book launch party in the New York City pop-celebrity scene.

The two words that keep coming to my mind to describe John Henry Days are both borrowed from music: polyphonic and contrapuntal. Not coincidentally, this book is also about the song "The Ballad of John Henry," which appears throughout the history of American vernacular music in hundreds of variations, from blues to folk to work song, with changing lyrics and shifting meanings. John Henry Days is a novel told in many voices, in several related and interrelated threads and themes, and as the stories move along, the themes comment on each other in many surprising and insightful ways.

In one plot line, an African American man is valued only for his brute strength lives and dies as an expendable cog in a machine. That machine might be called human progress, or it might be called industrialism, or capitalism, or bigotry, depending on the point of view.

In another plot line, an African American man lives by his wits and his skill with words, valuing nothing more than a free meal and an open bar. He is a cog in a different machine, the pop-celebrity-PR racket. He has no point of view. He has only the most modern weapons: irony, ennui, and disinterest.

John Henry Days is also about obsession and addiction. About how we can collect facts and knowledge yet somehow never fully understand any portion of history. About the search for authenticity, and the treachery of nostalgia. Along the way, the reader learns about the monumental enterprise of building railroad tunnels through mountains. About stamp collecting. About drill bits. About evolution of folks songs. The book is full of these wonderful little set pieces, windows into another world.

More than anything, though, John Henry Days is about a peculiar scourge of contemporary society: irony, or ironic detachment. If the hammer will be the death of the steel drivin' man John Henry, irony very nearly is the death of the modern protagonist. Portions of John Henry Days are spoof, and laden with irony, but the irony is used ironically, if you can get your head around that, in layer upon ironic layer.

But the historical and emotional pieces are never ironic; those are always told with depth of feeling. Gradually, as the polyphonic voices build the song, we see ironic superficiality weighed against the richly lived, passionately felt life, and revealed as a scam, a hoax.

We're all familiar with books where a protagonist is offered two visions of life, often portrayed as a choice between two people, and two father-figures. Which path will our hero travel? Will he choose violence or peace, competition or cooperation, family or the road? The protagonist of John Henry Days, in the end, must choose between a life with meaning and authenticity and a superficial life of ironic detachment.

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Already on my winter-break reading list: re-read Whitehead's debut novel, The Intuitionist. (John Henry Days contains a tiny inside-joke reference to that novel.) If you haven't yet read Colson Whitehead, start with Sag Harbor, then Apex Hides the Hurt. And if you love New York City, you must read his collection of essays, The Colossus of New York, worthy of sitting beside E. B. White's Here is New York on your bookshelf.

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