The main character of John Henry Days, Colson Whitehead’s second novel, is a hack journalist, J. Sutter, involved in his own man-against-machine contest. The machine in this case is not a mechanical steel driver, but something quite abstract: It is, generally, the media machine of American culture. More specifically, it is “The List,” maintained by a public relations man, of freelance journalists who travel to all-expenses-paid events for the free food and drinks, and who can be counted on to hand in a few hundred words of puff to their respective media outlets. J. Sutter’s contest is to see how many of these junkets he can travel to in succession. It is not exactly the raw, primal, flesh-against-steel stuff of legend, but if the Internet is to the 1990’s what the railroad was to the 1870’s, then J., as the content provider for a Web site, is a likely inheritor to the tradition of John Henry.
Readers of John Henry Days may or may not have thought deeply about the John Henry legend before this book, but they certainly will have afterward. In fact, the preface, which threads together different voices of people who claimed to know the true story, will hook most readers. In the legend that has been passed along most famously in “The Ballad of John Henry,” a strong black man, working for the progress of the machine age by driving steel rods into rock so that blast charges can open a tunnel, challenges the operator of a steam drill to a steel driving contest. He wins, but falls over dead. It is a profoundly ambiguous story, because one has to ask, what is in it for John Henry? In the best case, winning would only allow him to keep his job serving the progress of machines in the most grueling labor imaginable. Indeed, losing would not be the worst outcome. However, the popularity of this story down through the years suggests that the pyrrhic victory of man over machine strikes a deep human chord, and certainly comments on the struggle of African American men in the post-Civil War era. It is not only the senseless struggle, but the fascination with the struggle that Whitehead tries to capture in this comic, sprawling novel.
The setting for John Henry Days is Talcott, West Virginia, a few miles from the Big Bend Tunnel where, legend has it, the famous contest took place. The occasion is a new stamp that is being introduced in July, 1996. Talcott has organized a festival, which may become an annual event, and has hired Lucien Joyce, the keeper of The List, to advise them. J. and a few other “junketeers”—puff journalists—have traveled to West Virginia to cover the event. They drink on the company dime, trade jokes, attempt to sabotage The List, and in the end, as an early flashforward warns us, three of them get shot and killed. However, these bare bones of the plot in no way give a clear sense of the encyclopedic aspirations of this novel. Darting around the country, but mostly pinging and ponging between Talcott and New York City, the novel tries to look at the life of the John Henry legend between 1870 and 1996 by looking at the people it has affected and those who have influenced it.
Whitehead’s strategy allows him to take the point of view of anyone at any time, and to let the reader find the connection. Early in the book, one of his junketeers, Dave Brown, tells the story of the Rolling Stones’s free rock concert in 1969 at the Altamont Speedway in California and the murder that resulted, which was recorded in the movie Gimme Shelter(1970). There is no connection to the John Henry legend here (and happily, the author does not try to pretend otherwise), but there is some thematic connection to the final murder of this novel. More directly, though, the point seems to be to unhitch the novel from any expectation of orderly development. Mick Jagger is cast as a sort of Dionysus at the center of a violently orgiastic satire of Woodstock; this novel, similarly, will be the satyr-play version of the John Henry tragedy, down to its violent core.
Thus, readers get the story of Paul Robeson, who briefly played John Henry on Broadway, as well as a nine-page paragraph about a hack songwriter publishing a version of “The Ballad of John Henry” under his own name. The first of these reads like the type of piece Whitehead’s junketeers might have written—interesting, engaging, but in no way original. The second reads like the type of thing his junketeers would have lambasted mercilessly for its pretentiousness. Happily, there is also the story of Moses, a blues singer living...
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