With John Henry Days (2001), Colson Whitehead continues to show the stylistic prose talent that prompted me to put his first novel, The Intuitionist, on my top 100 list. If the novel’s structure was as tight as the prose, this novel would be high on the list, as well.
Don’t get me wrong. Whitehead is clever. His protagonist, J., is a freelance journalist who mooches free meals, free drinks, and even free clothes off the various events to which he is invited, supposedly to write them up for publication. A new product is being announced; the manufacturer wants publicity and invites journalists to the event, treating them to a good time in the hopes of a good article. Similarly, a new company is launched, a politician’s campaign is begun, an unknown author publishes a book. J. and fellow “junketeers” go, get what they can out of it, and make a getaway when possible. As long as they write up a certain percentage of the events, they’ll be invited to the next one.
Does this life exist? I don’t know and it doesn’t really matter. Whitehead invents a small world of junketeers who see each other at events frequently, developing a language all their own and even an “Anatomy of Puff” to describe the articles they often write (Bob’s Debut, Bob Returns, Bob’s Comeback, and the newly-created and somewhat controversial Bob is Hip). They talk a lot of smack and drink as much as possible on someone else’s dime. It’s plausible, while at the same time unbelievable enough to make you laugh at the conceit.
A bunch of these New York freeloaders end up in a small West Virginia town for the first annual John Henry Days—a weekend festival capped off with the unveiling of a new stamp celebrating John Henry, semi-mythic local figure of story and song who supposedly died after winning a steel-driving contest with the new-fangled steam steel-driving machine. The novel is populated by numerous characters related in some way to John Henry and/or his legend: a collector of John Henry memorabilia and his daughter; historians; musicians; a stamp collector; and even John Henry, himself, and fellow workers. Unfortunately, we meet these characters, sometimes only briefly, in a pastiche of chapters organized in some way that I cannot explain.
The fact that John Henry was Black, a former slave, freed by the Emancipation, is relevant throughout. Race consciousness and racism are never far away, often on the surface in both the past and the present. J., who is also African-American, is nervous walking down the road in rural West Virginia and I could only agree that caution and awareness are warranted in such a situation.
But despite the cleverness, stylistic prowess, and powerful themes, the book lacks focus and unification. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the books ending, where we are left knowing that J. must choose between professional and relationship goals, but not what that choice will be. It is not clear that either choice will yield positive results—in fact, one of them could lead to his death. An ambiguous ending is not bad, in principle, but in this case the result is unsatisfying at best. And, while I acknowledge the difficulty of creating good endings for novels, this one seems particularly unconsidered. It is as if Whitehead couldn’t decide what to do, so he just chose not to decide. In writing, as in life, such a non-decision is a decision in disguise; and in this case the disguise doesn’t hide a weak ending.
Whitehead is a gifted writer. That his second novel is not as good as his first only makes him human and I look forward to reading another of his novels soon.