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Colson Whitehead   John Henry Days  
Colson Whitehead    
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excerpt

  The original John Henry story is one of almost Norse fatalism: an ambidextrous giant narrowly defeats a steam drill in a contest to drive steel through a mountain, to make way for a railroad. He subsequently dies of an exploded heart. John Henry Days is full of human embodiments of this theme, people pursuing symbolic victories for their own obscure reasons, even at significant personal risk. The novel is haunted by characters--obsessed collectors of paraphernalia, compulsive freeloading journalists, and the steel-drivin man himself, John Henry--captivated, and finally summoned overboard, by the siren's call of professional destiny.

Sacrifice in the name of Progress, Prosperity, Technology, is not an uncommon theme in our great American stories. Witness The Alamo, or the Horatio Alger oeuvre. But John Henry's story is a dark departure from these. If John Henry were at the Alamo, his death would augur prosperity for future generations of his countrymen, rather than the end of a way of life for himself and thousands of his fellows. Were he the hero in a Horatio Alger tale, his diligence would be rewarded with wealth and greater freedom, rather than an exhausted death in a tunnel. But he is not, and it does not. From the moment he is born, John Henry marches in steady rhythm towards his sealed fate, becoming in some respects more machine-like than the Burleigh steam drill that kills him. This sense of unavoidable destiny holds Colson Whitehead's rangy narrative under its spell, unifying fragments (better, filaments) of diverse chronology and perspective around a single publicity-event-turned-catastrophe: the inauguration of the John Henry Days festival and official John Henry stamp in Talcott, West Virginia, in July, 1996.

Readers will appreciate Whitehead's comic insight into the public relations industry and the hack journalists it depends upon, and into crowd behavior as depicted in the scene at Talcott's county fair. But even more exceptional in a contemporary writer is Whitehead's kaleidoscopic narrative approach, which brings to mind the most formally ambitious work of Joyce, Pynchon or DeLillo. He achieves that particularly Modernist effect on the reader, a mnemonic champagne buzz that makes the novel delightful upon reflection as well as during the initial reading.

In this issue of Bold Type, Colson Whitehead offers an essay on his new book's origins: "I Worked At An Ill-Conceived Internet Start-Up and All I Got Was This Lousy Idea For A Novel." Get a first taste of the author's fractured storytelling technique in this passage from John Henry Days. Also, revisit Bold Type's feature of Colson Whitehead's first novel, The Intuitionist.

--Anson Lang

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  Photo credit: Natasha Stovall

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