John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
John Henry Days is a complex, sophisticated, heartbreaking and funny novel that explores themes of endurance, change through technology, and the meaning and implications of shared stories. We’ve all heard the story of John Henry, the steel driving man in West Virginia who challenged a steam drill, won and perished a hero immediately afterwards. Here the story is resurrected by placing it at the center of a present-day inaugural John Henry Days celebration in a town that is right next to the town where John Henry supposedly worked. You get the idea—the ownership of the story shifts depending on who tells it.
The story is told by a grand cast of characters, current day and historical, including John Henry himself, J. (could his name be John?), a journalist going for a new record for uninterrupted all-expenses paid journalistic jaunts courtesy of being on “The List,” Pamela, the daughter of a Harlem hardware store owner who amassed a John Henry memorabilia collection being sought for the new local museum, and Alphonse Miggs, a stamp collector who goes postal. Together the stories create a coherent, multifaceted whole that features intersections of characters in the past and present (Alphonse saves J.’s life by giving him the Heimlich maneuver to dislodge a piece of free prime rib; we meet J.’s mother as a daughter of Harlem’s Striver’s Row, ditching her proper piece of recital music for a bluesy rendition of John Henry). The John Henry story means different things to different people—a perceptive interpretation of one of our neglected national stories.
Even though there is vast cast of characters, the novel focuses on the story of J. and Pamela, two young people struggling to make meaning of their lives. J. is a talented and cynical journalist covering the celebrations, and Pamela struggles with resolving the story of her father’s John Henry collection—something she has hated, resented, and been ashamed of for years.
One of the highlights of the novel is the crowd scene at the fair—don’t miss it. Whitehead is supremely talented at describing the power of a crowd. (And if you liked that scene you will love his zombie masterpiece Zone One, which is a massive, magnificent crowd scene like no other).
If you’re looking for some contemporary literary fiction that explores American themes stop right here and read this.
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