Colson Whitehead's latest release, "John Henry Days" (Doubleday, 389 pages, $24.95), is an ambitious novel spanning American history from the Reconstruction to the eve of the 20th century.
Myriad aspects of American society fall prey to Whitehead's cutting wit as he traces the development of pop culture and examines themes of subtle and overt racism over the decades. The broad scope of the work is alternately riveting and dizzying as the scenes and stories blend and often clash.
The primary story within "John Henry Days" is loosely based on the Post Office release of the commemorative John Henry stamp in its Folk Heroes series. The publicity kick-off ceremony shakes up the sleepy West Virginia town of Hinton, fabled resting-place of the legendary steel-driver John Henry.
Roughly half of the novel focuses on the 1996 event, as seen through the eyes of freeloading free-lance writers, whose voices ring in a harmony of cynicism.
J. Sutter, a member of their rakish band, filters the ceremony for the reader. He is a man on a mission; he is driven to beat the longest standing junket record set by Bobby Figgis, who drove himself insane attending a different publicity function every day for a year.
The influence of an equally disillusioned chain-smoker, Pamela Street, and the momentum of John Henry's heroic defiance move J. to question his position bandying fluff and pop culture. Pamela, whose deceased father ran a John Henry museum out of his old Harlem apartment, is being courted by the townsfolk, who hope she'll sell off her father's life's work.
She and J. strike up an acquaintance of convenience and pass some powerful moments together as they each fight their disparate internal battles.
The legend of John Henry provides a foil for J.'s 20th-century struggle with "pop." Henry, martyr of the machine era, far outshines J., his modern-day counterpart. Whitehead attempts to illustrate the universality of the strife between humans and machines, but the simplicity of John Henry's race against a mechanized steel-driver is hard to parallel in an age where icons are virtual.
Even as Pamela and John Henry's legacy are calling J. to stand up to pop culture, J. meets and even propagates "pop" every time he opens his laptop to hustle off another "fluff piece" about some over-estimated event, person or product.
Just as J. is confused because he sees the enemy in the mirror every morning, the book struggles to find a symbol for the burgeoning pop culture that is J's adversary. Whitehead, searching for a symbol for J.'s elusive and destructive foe, riffs on American culture in general and ends up making an enemy out of a database of free-lance writers.
Dispersed throughout the tale are several vignettes. These detailed glimpses at characters and situations, while always vivid, often distract from the focus of the book. Scenes from Altamont to Striver's Row to Tin Pan Alley adorn the main story line. These accouterments, while studies in dazzling prose, steal the focus from J. and John Henry.
Whitehead's style is uniquely transitive, alternating in a page from screenplay form complete with stage directions to the memoirs of the defeated drilling machine. Whitehead jumps through time to bring in the development of "The Ballad of John Henry" as well as Paul Robeson's reflections about a 1940's John Henry musical and its flop on Broadway. These John Henry minutiae, however interestingly presented, are left dangling and only halfway tied in to the Sutter/Henry narrative.
The sense of dissatisfaction that "John Henry Days" inspires is due more to its unrealized potential than lack of literary merit. The novel explores expanses of time and social position through the many diverse "day in the life" snapshots that illustrate keen insight, but routinely fade into maddening blurs as the narrative leaps about.
Whitehead's talent shines in his prose and presentation of the human condition, however "John Henry Days" lacks the cohesion that characterized his stunning first novel "The Institutionist."
Abby Swift is a junior majoring in English and Spanish at Kansas University. She was a student in English 362 "Professional Writing: Book Reviewing" last spring.