Thursday, November 6, 2014

Review: "John Henry Days" by Colson Whitehead

Before reading John Henry Days, Colson Whitehead’s audacious sophomore novel, I had all but written him off as an overrated writer. His most recent novel, Zone One, has to be one of the most boring zombie/post-apocalyptic novels I have ever read, and his debut novel, The Intuitionist, is way to esoteric and out-there to appeal to anyone but academics. I’m beginning to think that Whitehead poured all his talent and literary attributes into this novel, because it is way better than I expected. The premise seemed weak from what I heard about it, and at 400 pages in small print, I thought I was in for some trouble. But what I didn’t expect was what Whitehead gives the reader over these 400 pages, which is an experience I would liken to reading Bolano’s 2666, Danielewski’s House of Leaves, and even Wallace’s Infinite Jest. There is something very demanding about this book, that it brings out the best in it’s reader, making them put all their focus and energy into the time it takes to read this book, almost to the point where it I habits your every waking moment, and sometimes even your dreams, as House of Leaves did for me. Before I started reading this book, I read Jonathan Franzen’s review for it, and I would have to agree that this is far from a page-turner, and although there is a whodunit involving a shooting, it isn’t very important, and any smart reader will figure out who it is before page 100. But what makes this book great is the complex ideas it presents, some that I will still be forming in my head for months to come. The plot, unlike its structure, is simple. J. Sutter, a journalist, is assigned to cover a festival in Talcott, West Virginia, honoring the legend of John Henry, who is getting a commemorative stamp. He is about to beat the record for most days on the job, but can’t get over how bored he is with everything in his life. Throughout the book, we meet his fellow journalist, one with a first hand account of The Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, as well as a woman whose life is dominated by John Henry memorabilia, a husband and wife who own a hotel in Talcott, and stamp collector whose wife is cheating on him. Interspersed with this narrative are many tales related to John Henry, from what might have actually happened to him during his fight with the steam drill, to the people affected by his legend, from songwriters to a depressed Paul Robeson in the book’s shining moment. Trying to tie these threads together is hard, but I think what Whitehead is trying to say may go deep into the human condition, about the myths, or lies we tell ourselves to stretch the truth in our favor, or how we let history define us, shown through J. Sutter, a well-to-do black man who is comfortable around high culture, but uses his race to judge whenever it suits his needs. Whatever this novel says, of which I am still not sure, it is one to make you think, from its many entertaining tangents to it’s near perfectly beautiful ambiguous ending, Whitehead has written a novel of astounding brilliance that I am in awe of.

Rating: 5/5

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