by Colson Whitehead
Whitehead, author of The Intuitionist, has written an unusual second book.
Even though there isn’t an elevator inspector in sight, if you read his first book you will know immediately he wrote this one. He shows the same command of language, quirky humor, and relentless sense of style here. For example, here is one of the central characters, a junketeer at an event dinner, whose meal has gone horribly wrong:
What’s this guy singing? He’s choking on the stubborn plug of meat. John Henry, John Henry. He works on the C&O Railroad. He pushes puff, he is going for the record. His muscles must be jumping out of his skin. It won’t move, it sits like a bullet in his throat. No oxygen for me, thanks, I’ve had enough. Luke Cage the Marvel Comics superhero had bulletproof skin. At one point he had a sticker book where he kept stickers of Marvel Comics superheroes, they jumped out of the page, dynamic, Avengers Assemble and all that, muscles on full ripple, Luke Cage the jive-talking ex-con. This is what we get. Your whole life is supposed to flash before your eyes and this is what I get. Step into the light. Red light? What was up with that yellow shirt he wore anyway, some sleazy guy in a disco laying lines on the ladies, Luke Cage. He finds it incredible that in this crushing and collapsing time, he has the time to think these thoughts. But they say your life flashes before your eyes. I’m a sophisticated black man from New York City and I’m going to die down here. With cicadas, they got cicadas down here, don’t they. I want roaches, real crumb-eating fucks from out of the drain.
Where The Intuitionist created a hermetically sealed world, John Henry Days delights in fracturing the narrative chain of events, characters and time periods spilling all over each other, reader occasionally tripping up as assumptions are exposed and do not hold.
Reading this book made me think of two kinds of photo collages. The first kind is created by taking multiple shots of the same scene, maybe even at different times of day, in an attempt to get at the whole picture. The result is a group of slightly overlapping photographs pinned to the wall, showing a bigger picture than could be taken in any single shot, even a panoramic one. The other kind of photo collage looks, from a distance, to be a picture of just one thing, perhaps a flamingo, but when you look at it closely, you see that the flamingo is made up of dozens or hundreds of pictures of completely different things, like cars or kites or candy. These collages are what Whitehead has created in story form with this novel.
The characters are compelling: a one-eyed man who lost his eye in a freak ‘making quotation marks in the air with your fingers’ gesture, a quietly nutty stamp collector, an estranged and grieving daughter, a small town mayor, a pill-popping hotel proprietress who believes in ghosts, postal workers hanging out at a bar, and a pioneering professor, among others. The main thread of John Henry — the man, the myths, his status as black hero, the PR event — and the various and sundry interconnections springing up in relation to John Henry connect each picture/chapter to the others.
Whitehead doesn’t necessarily go to all the expected places, either. He only spends a fraction of his time on what in most other books would be the headlining event: a shooting at the inaugural John Henry Days festival in tiny Talcott. He wants to tell more complicated stories than that singular tale would be. To explore race relations in this country, he has to tell more complicated stories than the expected headliner. “It’s always Mississippi in the fifties,” says J. Sutter (the black guy who was choking) to one of his (white) junketeering compatriots. But is it really? One of the things this novel looks at — by having characters simply living through their lives — is racism and its multiple pressures points and effects.
While this narrative structure was refreshing, I must confess it was also sometimes frustrating. In a more conventional novel where new characters or points of view are introduced, at some point, certainly before the reader is halfway through, the author usually begins the work of fitting all the puzzle pieces together. Here, all the pieces don’t satisfyingly snap together like that. The writing itself, not the action of the plot, draws you in and pushes you on, and this withholds the traditional rewards readers expect. It brings others, though: the photo collages aren’t beautifully painted landscapes, but they are still art, and they can still be beautiful.