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Colson Whitehead: John Henry Days

While this second book may not be quite as good as his first, it is still a very fine novel. We have the same basic theme – lone African-American makes his way against the white folk, with some limited help from another African-American. This time, we see it not only through the eyes of the hero – J. Sutter – but also through the eyes of the nominal subject of the book – John Henry.

J. Sutter is a journalist but a special kind of journalists. He is on The List, which means that he gets invited to all kinds of junkets, PR events, concerts and the like, with the expectation that he will write an article on some of them (though he is not expected to report on all of them). The List is one of the themes of the book. Who controls it? Who is put on it and who is taken off? How do they know when your phone number and e-mail address change? One Eye, a fellow journalist and junketeer, is obsessed with The List and drags J. into his plans to discover its whys and wherefores. The journalists all meet up in Talcott, West Virginia, where the local community is holding John Henry Days, a celebration of John Henry and his famous duel with the steam drill, which took place nearby. At the same time, the Post Office is introducing its John Henry stamp.

A secondary plot theme is the record, namely the record amount of consecutive junkets that one person can attend. The record is currently held by Bobby Figgis who took a bet to do it for a year. He did not manage the whole year – indeed, the whole attempt nearly killed him – but he still holds the record. J. is now on three months and is – not too enthusiastically – going for the record. Despite these MacGuffins, the book is ultimately a mild but clever satire on a whole range of contemporary mores – from racial attitudes to journalistic practices, from PR/advertising to modern music and how it is seen. Whitehead does not hold back in attacking any number of contemporary American behaviours, particularly those where African-Americans are excluded, exploited or subordinated. There is no ranting and raving. It is all subtle and probably many readers will even miss it. But it is very well done and very far-ranging.

We follow J’s career, from a Village Voice-like publication to his current position, where he is, as a writer, just discovering the web and content-based websites (Whitehead has a go at them as well). We follow his love life and his interaction – close but guarded – with his fellow journalists. We see the Mayor of Hinton (near Talcott) and his acolytes exploit the legend of John Henry. He pokes fun at the Post Office and, with a stamp collector present we get a new meaning for the expression going postal. The only other sympathetic character is Pamela, another African-American, with whom J may or may not have an affair. Her father was a keen collector of John Henry memorabilia. When he died she inherited the collection, which she hates, but has stored it and wants to sell it. She is considering selling to the John Henry Days but is reluctant because of a negative feeling towards Talcott. Whether she does or does not sell is also left open. She is the only person who is told what the J stands for (we are not told).

But the name of the game is exploitation of African-American culture by whites. There is not only the whole John Henry myth (including the academic work on it) and the John Henry Days but also the blues music and, indeed, everything associated with the legend, directly and indirectly. Whitehead does not beat a drum but he makes the point well. While the Wikipedia link mentioned above does say he might have been African-American, it paints him more as a working class hero. For Whitehead, given that he was born in slavery and treated barely better than a slave, he is an African-American hero, co-opted by the whites.

Publishing history

First published 2001 by Doubleday