‘John Henry Days’: Smarm and Hammer (Spring 2001)

John Henry Days, by Colson Whitehead. New York: Doubleday. 400 pages. $24.95.

There is a wonderful story in this novel, but it’s not the story the novel is advertis­ing. That story concerns a young black man who goes by the name of J., who in 1996 joins fellow hack-journalist junketeers for a freeloading weekend near Talcott, West Virginia. If the legendary contest between the ex-slave and steel driver John Henry and a steam drill ever really happened, it happened here; now the US Postal Service is issuing a John Henry stamp, part of its “Folk Heroes” series, and Talcott is putting on its first annual John Henry Days festival.

J. meets Pamela Street, who is trying to decide whether to sell Talcott her father’s John Henry Museum. Dead six months, he had devoted his life to John Henry, to every conceivable knickknack and souvenir—spurious shard of the true hammer or phony folk-art statue, sheet music or 78. This was Street’s childhood, as her father had nowhere to put his collection but in the family’s Harlem apartment; now it’s in storage and she can’t afford the rent. J. knows little and cares less about John Henry; Street wishes she knew anything else and didn’t care at all.It’s hard for the reader to care; this story doesn’t come off the page. In Colson Whitehead’s first novel, The Intuitionist, elevator inspector Lila Mae Watson steps out of the first chapter in jeopardy, and every move she makes seems like a risk. The novel roots itself in the unknowable, in horror and mysticism, as in Sax Rohmer’s The Mask of Fu Manchu or Jennifer Lynch’s The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer–or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. There’s a war between two schools of elevator inspectors; there are secret texts. The specter of a corrupt and ruined city merges the book with film noir, with permanent night and instant death, cover stories and false identities. The tale is coiled so tightly you feel that you’re not so much reading about elevators as trapped in one.

In John Henry Days, Whitehead reaches for the same menacing aura by introducing the shadow character of “the List”–perhaps simply a publicist’s log of those who can be counted on to show up at press parties and place stories in airline magazines and on websites, perhaps self-generating and omniscient.

The List possessed a will and function… It was to no end. Shmoozers were passed over and the quiet diligent welcomed; the reverse was true just as often. It was inscrutable… And the List rewarded the world. The percentage was maintained. Cover stories with witty headlines. Short and long reviews in the back of the book. Profiles of stars and magnates and web geniuses, insightful questions, silly questions… Those with dead careers walked among the living, resuscitated by a press release and attendant event at an appropriate venue… A comeback. A meteoric rise. A next big thing, jostling for position in a year-end double issue. The reclusive author breaks her silence and grants interviews to justify her grandiose advance. The precocious upstart seen at the right parties. Behind the scenes at the award ceremony. The triumphant return. The inner life of. The secret world. The stories were told. There was a need. The List facilitated.

J., who like some of his colleagues once thought writing was for something besides two dollars a word, has in a grand nihilist gesture determined to pit himself against the List, vowing to attend a press event every day for more than a year–to break the record. The last man who tried it was soon reduced to a shuffling, stinking wreck, and then he disappeared; presumably that’s what J. wants. The reader gets it: J., whose idea of utopia is an open bar and a prime-rib buffet, is John Henry and the List is his steam drill.

But J., like Pamela Street and the List itself, is too much a creature of bitterness to care about. He has no enemy, and nothing he loves. As with Whitehead’s early summoning of the List–a passage brought to vampirish life late in the book with a set piece on The Press Party Where Western Civilization Goes to Die, a fifteen-page extravaganza as stylistically expert and morally cheap as Robert Altman’s Nashville­–Whitehead’s principal characters are slack. They’re as unable to convince a reader that their adventures amount to anything as they are unconvinced by themselves.

The story hiding inside this one is Whitehead’s portrait of a real John Henry and of the odyssey of the ballad that made him immortal. This story–John Henry changing from flesh to words and melody and then traveling out of his own century and through the next, marking the lives of those who capture the song or who are captured by it–is made of bits and pieces, fictional vignettes rooted in lifetimes of research. You never know when to expect these breaks, and the ruling story is often so dulling you can forget they’re coming. When they do arrive, it’s as if you’ve been pitched headlong into another book altogether. You have no idea what the rules are, no clue as to what will happen or what’s at stake. Isn’t that what we read novels for?

There is the Jewish songwriter early in the twentieth century who catches the ballad almost as it walks authorless down the street; the folklorists, one white, one black, digging back from the ’20s into the nineteenth century in search of a true story or a true ballad, uncertain which is which or which they’d rather find; a white novelist turning the legend into a minstrel show, and then Paul Robeson, sitting in his dressing room, ready to play the Broadway version, not moving, as if he can see through the next twenty-four years into his own ruin; a blues singer recording in Chicago and finding in his own variant of the tune a way to beat the machine that is taking his voice for its own; a young girl on Strivers Row in Harlem in the ’50s dirtying her family’s piano with what her mother comes in screaming is “gutter music”; the father destroyed by his obsession with the legend, the song, the what can never be put into words, who has exchanged his life for the playbill next to the very clothes Robeson wore onstage, for the player-piano rolls next to the authentic 1870s West Virginia steel spike–

He had sold his store to devote all his time to the museum, which no one ever visited… He always wore the same clothes, he’d had them for years, and on this one pair of pants the fly was broken and he walked around with his fly open, not caring… On Father’s Day they’d go around the corner to a restaurant and there would be all these families in their best clothes, and her father would be this shambling homeless man.

–and the crackhead in the ’90s croaking the old song on what might as well be the same New York City street where, almost a century before, Jake Rose, the first man to copyright the ballad, found it.

John Henry himself, in Whitehead’s hands, is at once human and beyond human–as if he knows not only that he will die beating the steam drill, but that for more than a hundred years people will be trying to understand why. We first meet him just as he has crushed the hand of the boy substituting for his regular shaker, or spike-holder–

John Henry told the boy to quiet his screaming. He was not the first he had maimed… The boss asked him what he was standing around for.

John Henry said he needed another shaker. The boss spat into the ground and nodded. There was no shortage of niggers.

–and leave him emerging from a bad dream. In reality, he’s been ill, but in the dream he’s driving the steel his real shaker is holding, and he feels the bit sink in more easily and deeper than ever before, and then “the blood is up to his neck. Then the blood spray blinds him again and he is awake.”

When he wakened he was grateful for a moment and then he realized it was still dark. He had traveled through a series of fever dreams all night. They were coupled together like train cars. He knew that the caboose contained morning and each time he fell asleep he hoped that this time he would step into it. But he opened the door to the next car and stepped again into nightmare. He did not know what time it was.

The instant, silent shift from the uncomplicated simile, “like train cars,” to a metaphor so inexorable all sense of literary device disappears–that is Whitehead as a writer alive to his subject. Again and again in John Henry Days, for a line here or there, for pages at a time, he carries his reader into lands equally unknown and unexplored–and then the prosaic, which in The Intuitionist never quite exists, holds hands with what can be named but not seen. “Good old American know-how,” Whitehead says of the shooting galleries and test-your-strength games at the John Henry Days festival, “It’s all rigged.” Whitehead is an unrigger; this time he has rigged himself into a trap he couldn’t write his way out of. He could, though, write around it, and it’s there, camping on the outskirts of the plot, that in years to come readers will fmd the fragments of a classic American novel.

BookForum, Spring 2001

3 thoughts on “‘John Henry Days’: Smarm and Hammer (Spring 2001)

  1. I appreciate your point, Jeff. One of the aims of this experiment is to have cross-referencing happening all over the place. It will happen on an explicit level eventually, but the search engine itself should in the meantime also aid in that regard.

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