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John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead

 

Recommendation:

 

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Ironman

Colson Whitehead’s novel, John Henry Days, works well on so many levels. There’s a great parallel between the life of protagonist J. Sutter and the historical figure or mythical figure of the title. Whitehead presents characters, background and plot with ease and in an indirect, meandering way that becomes charming after a few dozen pages. The creativity, coupled with descriptive and poetic language, makes this an enjoyable and entertaining novel.

Here’s an excerpt that describes Lucien, the executive who maintains the List of junketeers who populate PR events:

“Lucien has to keep Lawrence on his toes. He looks into the future: Next time they have an out-of-town event, Lawrence will research all the local flora and fauna, just in case. But Lucien will not ask the next time. Lawrence will wait for the questions but it will not come, then he’ll try to slip his new knowledge into the conversation somehow. Listen to that red-breasted robin, Lucien, it’s their mating season and that is their mating call.
These trees do not dissemble. They are true to their natures, like Lucien. Lawrence his first day on the job probably imagined he was coming to work for a Mike Ovitz, or a fashioner of summer blockbusters. A postmodern Barnum in a slimming Italian suit. All who meet Lucien expect such, such is his reputation, misearned. Certainly he surprised Lawrence immediately, in those first few days (he must have) with his humility and soft, careful speech. Oh, he thunders now and again, but only at those who understand thunder and will listen to nothing else. Certainly he surprised Lawrence with his sincerity over time. (Ticking off here his favorite attributes.) Lucien is not, as many believe him to be, fake. Such a label implies premeditation, that the inner man does not match the outer man and fakery is involved. But he is no counterfeiter. From time to time, after the lights have been turned out and the surly emanations of the streetlights fill his bedroom or in odd moments at well-attended events when he is in between greetings and small talk and alone in a crowd before he has decided on his next strategic interaction, Lucien will find himself lost in his landscape. How he stumbled there is not important, which sign he misinterpreted that led him into this introspective cul-de-sac, what is important is that he is face to face with his character and must account for what he has become, and in those moments he will not flinch. He can describe the man he sees with merciless acuity, recognize the hunched and shriveled creature before him and there, it happens, he extends his arms without reluctance or disgust to embrace his true self. And there is no disagreement between Lucien at that moment of sudden confrontation and Lucien at this very moment, on the job, timecard perforated, en route to his latest assignment. No false front, he does not dissemble, he is exactly as he appears to be.”

You’ll spend an enjoyable several hours reading John Henry Days, and will savor Whitehead’s fine writing, and think about his characters for some time to come.

Steve Hopkins, January 9, 2002

 

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