Colson Whitehead’s first novel, The Intuitionist (1999), won several prizes and extravagant praise from American critics. Whitehead is black and comparisons were made to Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison and Ishmael Reed. John Updike has called him ‘blithely gifted’, ‘the young African-American writer to watch’. Whitehead’s new novel, John Henry Days, is longer and more ambitious than The Intuitionist, and the suggestion in its title of mythic black strength and suffering, together with its encyclopedic range, raise epic expectations. Is this that most elusive of leviathans, a black Moby-Dick, the Great African-American Novel? If the answer disappoints, it does so teasingly, in some ways hearteningly. Though the novel’s central figures are black, racial themes are quickly woven – submerged – into a larger cultural critique. The names that now come to mind, some also cited by readers of the earlier novel, are DeLillo, Pynchon, Foster Wallace, Powers, the totalising Postmodernists. The new novel’s formal and thematic features connect it to a recognisable trend in contemporary American fiction, as do its strengths and weaknesses. Like its present-day (as opposed to its other, legendary) black hero, it is thoroughly assimilated.
This hero, J. Sutter, is a junketeer journo, what in Britain would be called a ‘ligger’. His main objective (identical to that of his white colleagues) is free food and drink: all-you-can-eat salad; chocolate margarita shakes (at a Ronald McDonald product placement); spinach dumplings (the sort that leave ‘a green rot on the incisors that everyone is too polite and malevolent to remark upon’); ‘authentic’ army rations (at TNT’s launch of its new Civil War movie, where ‘everyone dug it and made ironic comments’); and prime rib, the junketeer’s holy grail, glistening under ‘the red light of the heating lamp at the far shore of the buffet table . . . mashed potatoes softening in essence of beef, the blood tinting the fluffy potato pink and refining it even purer, softer . . . the sublime distillation of all the buffets he’s known’. Like Tiny, his fellow junketeer, J. has become ‘the perfect mooching machine, leaving no glass undrained or napkin unstained by chicken skewer residue’. Yet J.’s life is not without its dangers. At least one rock journalist he knows of has been hospitalised ‘for nibbling without permission at some of the band’s chicken’. Another colleague has an eye poked out, lunging for free drinks at an open bar. At a book launch, a hip-hop artist ‘loses his clip-on gold tooth in the hummus’. J. himself almost chokes to death on a plug of prime rib, one of the few things actually to happen in the novel.
J. is going for the record: an entire year on the road without stopping, paying for nothing. ‘Everything on him is free,’ we are told, and freshly laundered (‘charged to his hotel bill, which was in turn picked up by the record company that had invited him there’). When the novel opens, J.’s been on freebies for three months, starting with ‘the Barbie thing’ (a doll ‘with a Range Rover and vaginal cleft’). Of the ersatz events J. covers (for hipster tipsheets, lifestyle mags, travel websites, Playboy, even the New Yorker, though appearing there is ‘a sure friendship-killer in the freelance world’), only a third get written up: those ‘where the number of expenses and the dollar-per-word bounty make coasting prohibitive’. ‘It’s not everyone who gets to be a contributing writer to six different tax shelter magazines,’ a colleague declares admiringly. Such men (there seem to be no women junketeers) think of themselves as defending ‘the primal American right of free speech, the freedom, without fear of censor, to beguile, confuse and otherwise distract the people into plodding obeisance of pop’. When J. and his publicist girlfriend, Monica, meet for one of their grim bi-weekly couplings, they are described as ‘plummeting through fads and flavours of the month, through a universe of events and beyond . . . deep into cold pop’.
At the heart of pop – by which is meant everything in modern culture that is bogus, empty, superficial – lies the List, a PR device that the novel means to invest with sinister Pynchonesque omniscience. The List keeps track of everybody, knows all the most recent advances in information technology, ‘the quirks and pet names of maître d’s’, the latest clubs, the shifting identities of bouncers and gatemen. It thrives on the Internet, an innovation (or ‘new innovation’, a not uncharacteristic slackness) of which J. approves: ‘its expansion of the already deep abstraction of his job appeals to him.’ ‘Since the days of Gutenberg,’ Tiny reflects,
an ambient hype wafted the world, throbbing and palpitating. From time to time, some of that material cooled, forming bodies of dense publicity. Recently this phenomenon occurred more frequently. Everyone felt this change, it was tactile and insistent. They found themselves in abstract rooms at events of no obvious purpose.
The List eats up all its subjects, absorbing them into ‘something larger, cog and flywheel’. The last junketeer to go for the record found himself unable either to quit or to persist (that is, ‘to submit himself mindlessly to the flux of events’): he had been ‘devoured by pop’. Until J. goes for the record (a gesture we are to see as simultaneously subversive and self-defeating), no one else had ‘given a fuck’, which is why they were put on the List in the first place. For all the supposed power of larger and unknowable mechanisms and forces, the junketeers and their dupes are presented as culpable; the satiric impulse in the novel offers little room for sympathy of the sort Pynchon and Foster Wallace often find for their characters. That J. and his colleagues ‘want things for free’ is sneered at, and seen as representative:
The List wants key Americans. And the junketeers are quintessential Americans, J. thinks. They want and want now and someone else is picking up the check. Such model and exemplary citizens that people listen to what they have to say. They follow our lead.
In opposition to the List, and the moral vacancy it facilitates, the novel juxtaposes the legendary figure of the black ‘steel-driving man’, John Henry. The year is 1996, and J. has been summoned with his fellow junketeers to Talcott, West Virginia, the supposed site of John Henry’s demise. This is where the United States Postal Service has chosen to launch the first of a series of stamps commemorating American folk heroes (the others are Paul Bunyan, Mighty Casey and Pecos Bill). According to legend, John Henry worked on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, driving steel in the Big Bend Tunnel just outside Talcott. It is here that he bests that earlier ‘new innovation’, the steam drill. John Henry defeats the machine, then expires, in the words of the ballad, ‘with a hammer in his hand’ (or ‘each hand’, since in some versions of the legend he is ambidextrous, drilling with two nine-pound hammers simultaneously). The launch commemorating John Henry actually took place; the novel reproduces the USPO’s June 1996 press release and you can presumably still buy the stamp. Whether John Henry himself existed is uncertain, though Whitehead weaves every scrap of information about him he can find into the narrative, in both fictional and documentary form.
Which accounts in part for the novel’s bulk, as much a feature of Postmodern fiction as its unrelenting self-consciousness. There are chapters on the ballad’s variants; on eyewitness testimony (the supposed contest with the drill can be dated, since the C&O did, indeed, blast its way through Big Bend Mountain in 1872); on the black American scholar who first investigated the story (Guy Johnson, author of the 1929 monograph John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend, which is acknowledged in the American edition); on the history of railroading, the steam drill, Tin Pan Alley (where a single nine-page paragraph introduces us to the author of the first published version of the ballad); on John Henry knick-knacks; on Paul Robeson (who played John Henry briefly on stage). These passages of research are interspersed not merely with the narrative but with comparably detailed documentary material from J.’s (and, it would seem from interviews, Whitehead’s) own history: a chapter on the black bourgeoisie of ‘Strivers’ Row’, the Harlem street J.’s aunt grew up in; on alternative newspapers (Whitehead spent several years as a TV reviewer for the Village Voice); on start-up dot.coms; on New York crackheads (from J.’s Fort Greene neighbourhood); on the particulars of gun-ownership and registration in Maryland; on Altamont (14 pages, for no very clear reason, though a black boy died there). When the junketeers check into the Talcott Motor Lodge, we get chapters on motel management. There’s a chapter on an undistinguished blues singer from Chicago who records the ballad. When a stamp collector appears, we learn all about philately. The Intuitionist was about elevator inspectors in Manhattan (‘service-shaft skulduggery’), and also jammed with technical detail. Apparently, Whitehead’s third novel is to be about band-aids.
All this research holds back the narrative, robbing it of suspense and forward momentum. The one obviously dramatic event, a shooting spree at the stamp-launch, is signposted early in the novel, though who dies is never disclosed. Otherwise, there’s little to figure out. In DeLillo, Pynchon and Foster Wallace the information overload is vertiginous, creating a pervasive sense of dislocation. Here it mostly clutters. The thematic connections are either tenuous, tendentious or pat. ‘If I were writing it up,’ one of J.’s colleagues announces before the launch, ‘I could see focusing on the industrial age-information age angle. John Henry’s man-against-machineness. That’s still current, people can still empathise with his struggle and get into it and all that shit.’ Even when questions are left up in the air – were John Henry’s struggles heroic or self-defeating? – their undecidability is signposted. When he first hears of John Henry, in grade school, J. asks his teacher: ‘If he beat the steam engine, why did he have to die? Did he win or lose?’ Mostly, J. remains as sceptical as his white colleagues. Bored in his motel room, he picks up the glossy press pack put out by Talcott’s city fathers: ‘Building the country mile by mile. This is the forging of a nation. This is some real hokey shit.’ Only very rarely does J. seem affected by the John Henry story; his attitudes remain fixed, his character doesn’t develop.
Also undeveloped, or developed only minimally, is J.’s attraction to Pamela Street, daughter of an obsessive collector of John Henry memorabilia (like Marvin Lundy, the fanatical collector of baseball memorabilia in DeLillo’s Underworld). Pamela is as modern as J., an aimless, jittery temp whose experiences in the high-tech workplace are similarly alienating. One of her jobs was at a dot.com start-up where the Tool, a digital equivalent of the List, makes superfluous an already disconnected workforce. ‘In this system, by design perhaps, there was little eye contact, and the rest of the team was almost as anonymous as the people whose web pages they worked up.’ Pamela has come to Talcott to scatter her father’s ashes, an act of exorcism as much as fealty, the father’s obsession having cut him off not just from the family but from life in general. J. vaguely fancies Pamela but never quite gets round to making a pass. She’s no more energetically attracted to him (all the characters in the novel are underpowered). In the concluding pages she invites J. to return with her to New York. If he goes he will miss the actual launch where, the reader already knows, someone (J., it is heavily hinted) will be shot. ‘He stands there with sun on his face deciding,’ the novel concludes, ‘as if choices are possible.’
In his largely favourable review of John Henry Days in the New Yorker, Updike expresses some impatience with this ending: ‘If choices aren’t possible’ for J., Updike asks, why is he ‘taking up space in the middle of a work of fiction’? He has a point. Though the ending is left open, we never feel that J. has the power to reform his life or escape it, or that Pamela offers any alternative. Neither character has much of an internal life, the sort that might offer a counterweight to the soullessness and superficiality of modernity. J.’s family barely figures in the narrative. Nothing we learn of his past points him to human connection; there’s no one for him to love or watch out for, no Mason to his Dixon. At the end of Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon, the titular protagonists, having spent their lives ‘in the service of a Flag whose colours we never saw . . . sit for a while in what might be an embrace’. John Henry Days offers no such grace note. Whitehead has said that the idea of John Henry helps J. to ‘come alive’, but it’s hard to see how. His change or growth, like the possibility of choice, is never dramatised.
The absence of dramatised choices in the novel is a flaw, however, as well as a theme. Whitehead wants it both ways: he wants to write a humanist as well as a Postmodern epic, just as he wants us to see John Henry’s story as both nobler than, and similar to, J.’s. John Henry, as presented in the fictionalised chapters here, has a dignity J. is denied. But he, too, is a dupe or tool, comparably victimised by machinery. The novel both deplores what Updike calls the ‘dilutions and ironies’ of assimilation and integration, the reduction of ‘John’ to ‘J.’, and undercuts John Henry himself. ‘The novel’s nominal hero decided to battle a machine and won,’ Updike says. But he didn’t win, except in the most local or literal sense: nowhere in John Henry Days does the legend offer either hope or a distinctive African-American perspective on the dilemmas it anatomises, though this is surely the intention.
The pleasures and insights of the novel are in its sharp and funny touches, especially in the satire of the junketeers. Moments in the fictionalised chapters on John Henry have a quiet spareness, and real ingenuity underpins several of the multiple allusions to the legend. Yet there is also overwriting. ‘Everyone has a limit to how many T-shirts they can own,’ we are told: ‘the figure varies with the individual.’ A record is panned not just ‘irredeemably’ but ‘irredeemably to the mephitic baths of perdition’ (a joke, presumably). When tourists fresh from the shore track sand into a motel, the owner ‘imagines the grains jumping like fleas from the battlements of sneaker treads’. J. meditates on the term ‘in storage’, which suggests ‘optimism, everything temporary and defined, it promises a reversal of destiny and yet speaks in the dull syllables of finality, has the eloquence of a cemetery’. In moments such as these, we see Whitehead straining to meet the demands of the ambitious second novel. In the hack-speak of their celebrity profiles, J. and his friends have a formula ready for such a dilemma: ‘emboldened by success, he tries to tackle too much.’