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Colson Whitehead: Apex Hides the Hurt

Our hero is a nomenclature consultant. Ironically, he does not reveal his name to us. His job is to name products. His most successful achievement was naming the adhesive bandage known as Apex. Apex was made by a company that made a shoddy quality product but which managed to survive by selling to the military and hospitals. However, it now wants to be number two in the adhesive bandage market and has come up with the idea of adhesive bandages of different hues, for different racial groups. Our hero comes up with name Apex. However, despite considerable success in his career, he has a problem with his foot. He keeps stubbing his toe and, eventually, it goes septic and he spends time in hospital. When he comes out, he quits the job and dumps his girlfriend. Now, the company has called him to assist on a special job. The town of Winthrop has a choice of three possible names and he has to arbitrate as to which one should be adopted.

Winthrop was founded as Freedom by a group of freed slaves, led by the Goode (the optimistic one) and Field (the pessimistic one) families. A white man, called Winthrop, came along and brought jobs (a barbed wire factory) but also a name change to Winthrop. A deal was struck whereby two of three city council members had to vote in favor of the name change and, apparently, they did (plot twist warning – our hero later finds out that it wasn’t quite like that). Now, there is a new sheriff in town. Lucky Aberdeen has set up a very successful software company and is now the third member of the council (the others being the mayor, Regina Goode, descendant of, and Albie Winthrop, also descendant of). Goode wants Freedom, Winthrop wants Winthrop and Aberdeen wants New Prospera. Our hero has been brought in to adjudicate.

The novel takes place within the few days he is in Winthrop and tells of his dealings with the three council members, the librarian (who leads him to a more accurate story than the PR fluff) and others, as well as his past, including the infamous toe and his successes as a nomenclature consultant. Sadly, while the satire is clear and the theme of the African-Americans screwed by the whites (Albie Winthrop even does the some of my best friends routine) is cleverly done, the whole book does not work as well as his first two. Indeed, I get the impression that this was a book he paid much less care and attention to. But it is still worth reading.

Publishing history

First published 2006 by Doubleday