John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Wow. What a great book.
Whitehead takes a folk tale -- that of black steel driver John Henry -- and brings it to a life that spans the beginning of the age of the railroad to the 1990's. It's not because John Henry lived that long. Actually, Henry died quite young since winning a steel-driving contest with a machine cost him his life. Whitehead does it by bringing to light the life of various characters whose lives intersect somehow with the folk hero.
There is J. Sutter, the hack who is sent on a junket to cover the inauguration of the "John Henry Days" in the Midwest town that has laid claim to being the birthplace of John Henry. There is Pamela, the daughter of a man who spent his life collecting John Henry memorabilia and ran a museum dedicated to the railroad worker out of his apartment which no one ever visited. There is the stamp collector whose crowning jewel is a stamp of John Henry and who, inexplicably, begins shooting his gun at a John Henry Days event and is shot down by police. There is, of course, John Henry himself toiling on the West-ward railroad alongside many other poor men of that era.
The novel is not written linearly or chronologically. We don't start at the beginning of John Henry's life and end at the closing of John Henry Days. Instead, in each chapter, Whitehead narrates a different slice of the American tale of John Henry from the perspective of a different character. While at times this device can be slightly disorienting it also keeps the novel alive -- saving it from a plodding linear narration.
I am edified by the reading of this novel. I had never heard of John Henry. Now his name, story, and legend are meaningful to me. His life is American and modern history. He represents the generations who died to bring humanity the railroad. His death -- in competition with a steam machine to drive steel -- is a sacrifice to "progress."
Whitehead's writing style is mesmerizing and entirely original. His descriptions seems to defy the laws of narrative gravity.
By the end of the novel J. Sutter has gotten his story but it's not one that he was expecting. It's not the fluff that, as a regular junketeer, he's hired to write. He's found something much more meaningful and he must choose between which story he will bring to the light and what life he will live from then on.
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