Sunday, June 26, 2016

John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead

Using an old song to look at modern America

J., a thirty-something journalist, a hack, keeps his head down and survives by scavenging the buffet tables at press junkets, reliably turning out puff pieces at the gilded requests of public relations executives. Almost accidentally he starts trying for the record – a junket a day as long as his body and mind can hold out. He is called from Manhattan to West Virginia to report on the unveiling of new postage stamp commemorating American folk hero, John Henry, who foolishly challenged a steam drill to a duel, won, then promptly died. The stories of other characters are interwoven here – the ghost-seeing mistress of a motel, an upper class African-American girl forbidden to play blues music, an obsessive collector of John Henry memorabilia and his resentful daughter, a stamp collector relegated to the basement of his home, and many more.

This was a real American novel, a tour de force. I admired its ambition, the use of the different voices. Among the many themes were trading your talent for a nickel, turning away from true love and connection, navigating your way through white-centric America, and the multifaceted origins of myth. The technique, that of the several vignettes, the several voices, reminded me of The Blind Assassin. At some level, the book is about nerds, obsessive compulsives feeling more at ease with their wonky collections than with other human beings. The author also skewers something that really needs to be skewered -- junket journalism which has conquered almost all sections of the trade. (Although I think the days of the free spending expense accounts are over.) I loved the Altamont vignette -- sheer genius. The story was also well plotted, skillfully placing the nuggets of information, the little mysteries that keep the reader reading.

However, as the novel progressed, it began to remind me of that Annie Proulx novel about the accordion. Which I hated. I mean, it was too cold.  This is most definitely a satire and perhaps a satire is a little too sour and cynical to be loved. To be great? Also I felt beaten over the head. Got it, journalists are craven. Yet there also seems to be an aversion of passion. The one true hero in the book, John Henry, is kind of a dunce. As J. asks as a child, “If he died, did he win?” The system is rigged. John Henry is presented as sort of an emptiness around which the legends and songs coalesce. Despite these misgivings, there are some beautiful emotionally clear scenes in here, especially the digging of the grave. In the end, however, I felt that the balance of the book was too unfeeling.

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