Monday, August 1, 2011

Stamping Grounds: Colson Whitehead's "John Henry Days"

Last year, I was highly satisfied with a reading of 1999's The Intuitionist, my first introduction to the work of Colson Whitehead. His fantastical account of warring elevator inspectors was a metaphorical exploration of American race relationships, bureaucratic hypocrisy, and gender identifications, all packaged into a compelling mystery novel. Since then, I've read quite a bit of his excellent book reviews and essays, as well as following his Twitter feed (@colsonwhitehead), which happens to be one of the most entertaining ones I've encountered, a good combination of poetic riffs and genuinely insightful commentaries. Recently, I made time to read his second novel, John Henry Days, thereby continuing my accidental trend of reading his novels chronologically. Published in 2001, the novel is a sort of combination of the above traits. It's a mix of contemporary and older American landscapes and values, along with more explicit looks at racial identity, this time with the metaphorical aspects being more sly. Also, like Whitehead's nonfiction writings, it's another careful balance of the serious and the comical.

In Talcott, West Virginia, various people begin to assemble for the first annual John Henry Days Festival, a celebration of the mythical folk hero and an official unveiling of a U.S. Postal Service stamp commemorating American folklore. Among the people are: J. Sutter, a black journalist from Manhattan who is covering the event for a travel website, as well as trying to set a press junket attendance record; J.'s fellow journalists writing for other publications; Pamela, a chain-smoking young woman who inherited a massive collection of John Henry memorabilia from her father; a nebbish stamp collector named Alphonse Miggs; and a collection of P.R. representatives, local motel owners, and small town politicians. Alternating chapters provide an extensive fictionalized account of the John Henry story, as well as details about how the myth permeated American society through song, academia, becoming a story that takes on almost religious acceptance.

J. Sutter is a career journalist, navigating a world of banquets, release parties, and deadlines. He collects receipts to falsely inflate his expense accounts, wears free clothes accumulated at fashion junkets, and lives for free buffets and food spreads. The John Henry Days assignment isn't glamorous, but he views it as a job. However, he is slightly worried about being a black man in a small Southern town, and has a tendency to project his own stereotypes on the local people. One might be tempted to categorize J. as "disaffected," (this adjective appears on the paperback's plot description) but weary is probably more appropriate. He has seen everything in the world of journalism, and even the novelty of web-based writing is taken in stride. In describing J., Whitehead explores the character's personality, and also manages to be ahead of his time in depicting the internet as just another source of information.

"J. doesn't feel like explaining the web; this guy probably thinks a laptop is some new kind of banjo. Lucien set it up. J. hasn't worked for the web before but knew it was only a matter of time: new media is welfare for the middle class. A year ago the web didn't exist, and now J. has several hitherto unemployable acquaintances who were now picking up steady paychecks because of it. Fewer people are home in the afternoon eager to discuss what transpires on talk shows and cartoons and this means people are working. It was only a matter of time before those errant corporate dollars blew his way. He attracts that kind of weather (Whitehead 19)."

His interactions with the other members of the press are rendered effectively; they aren't friends or co-workers, but linked together through similar assignments. His meetings with Pamela follow an expected trajectory, from initial irritation to friendly acceptance to potential romantic feelings. Upon reflection, J. and Pamela, for all of the past and present details of their lives, are not written for the reader to gain a complete understanding of them. They develop nicely, but the novel leaves their future open-ended. However, Whitehead provides them with enough depth to be realistic. Pamela, for example, is not thrilled about being at the festival; she's merely hoping to rid herself of her father's John Henry collection, and more problems are boiling below her surface.

"Haunted by stuff. Hunched over ramen, in the same clothes she'd worn for days, she felt dazed. She was on the patch. She was off the patch. She was on the gum and smoking in between. She didn't go out that much, partly because she couldn't afford to, partly because going out did nothing for her mood. Her friends understood, her friends told her it was natural. It was part of the grieving process. Therapy diffuses: everyone knew the cant, the correct diagnosis. It was natural. It had nothing to do with her father, however, it had to do with John Henry, the original sheet music ballads, railroad hammers, spikes and bits, playbills from the Broadway production, statues of the man and speculative paintings (Whitehead 45)."

The beauty of John Henry Days lies in Whitehead's depictions of American history. He explores the world of songwriters and the prevalence of John Henry as a time-honored song subject. Pages are devoted to the plight of singer Paul Robeson, who played John Henry onstage. Yet the fictionalized stories of John Henry, while based on American mythology as opposed to the more factual histories of the song business and the story of Robeson, are the most striking and real. Internet research hints to the very real possibility of John Henry being based on an actual black steel driver; like much of contemporary mythology and legend, the truth has been obscured through time, conflicting accounts, and letting the story stand for its own morality and meanings. Whitehead takes these ideas and crafts them into a tale that draws on the humanity of John Henry, the troubles of being a black man in the 1800s, and thereby highlighting the story in ways that are not always apparent.

"John Henry turned to bed early that night. He had never been beaten by another man's hammer but pride is a sin. He took his rest. The payday carousing tried to keep him awake but he willed himself to sleep and dreamed of the contest as a fistfight between the white man and the black man over the fill of the western cut. The dead watched the contest from beneath the rock. He saw through their eyes staring up at himself as he crushed the face of the white man. He did not need his hammer for that (Whitehead 147)."

"If John Henry wanted he could have put faces to the voices but he did not try. He knew all the men. Some were friends. Some were enemies. It did not matter where they stood with him as their talk swirled into one talk about the contest. They laid bets on whether a man could beat a machine. All of their wagers on John Henry before this time were rehearsals for this day. One voice came to him saying it was impossible. Another voice said John Henry was no kind of man like you and me, but a demon and no machine was going to stop him (Whitehead 384)."

John Henry Days is not without its occasional misstep. Aside from J. the other journalists, while occasionally given strong dialogues and important later scenes, sometimes become grating and serve more as obvious personality types instead of true characters. The details of Alphonse Miggs, the seemingly henpecked stamp collector, are incredibly compelling, yet his true worth to the novel almost becomes an aside, rather than a rewarding payoff. However, for a second novel, Whitehead manages to expand on the themes and motifs that made The Intuitionist such a force. In addition to fictionalizing the real questions of race relations, Whitehead has a gift for his take on various settings. The Intuitionist was written in a city that could have easily been alive in the past or set in the future. In John Henry Days, race and settings, both contemporary and historical, are shown in a classic novel format. These books are excellent beginnings and foundations for Zone One, his forthcoming novel set during a zombie apocalypse. I've long disdained the cultural fascination with zombie stories, but if Whitehead can take well-discussed issues and render them unique, I'm sure my reaction to that work will be the same.

Work Cited:
Whitehead, Colson. John Henry Days. Copyright 2001 by Colson Whitehead.


Terrance said...

Nicely done, my friend. I've enjoyed all your writings, but I especially enjoy reading your takes on stuff I've read, digested, and loved. I think I read "John Henry Days" at a time when I wasn't objectively open to flaws, and I completely accept your assessments. I'm glad you enjoyed the novel despite those flaws. Colson Whitehead is one of my favorites, and I look forward to his next book, one I have been looking forward to. You sump both this book and his previous work nicely here. Great job and I look forward to reading more of your writing!

James Yates said...

Thank you, Terrance!

And really, my own definition of "flaws" in this novel are purely opinion-based...although in the past, I've had a tendency to expand on flaws, only to discover that they were my fault due to careless readings. But I don't think I missed anything major, at least in regard to Alphonse Miggs. I was amazed at the story of the Rolling Stones concert, and I think that was the only major piece to the puzzle of the other journalists, aside from "The List," which I didn't mention here.

Side note: I read the opening to Jonathan Franzen's NYT review of John Henry Days, and in it, he expressed concern that having a female protagonist in The Intuitionist was really Whitehead's own projection of a sexual fantasy. You know how much I respect Franzen, but I was completely taken aback by this statement. Strange.

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