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'JOHN HENRY DAYS' | A review Sprawling novel fails to find a focus



Published: Sun, June 24, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Only the myth of John Henry binds this fragmented novel.

By ROB STOUT

SPECIAL TO THE VINDICATOR

& quot;John Henry Days, & quot; by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday, $24.95)

In his 1999 debut & quot;The Intuitionist, & quot; Colson Whitehead took the esoteric world of elevator inspection and created a fresh literary trope for race relations in America.

Race, and rac ism, are still central themes in & quot;John Henry Days, & quot; his eagerly anticipated follow-up. But his understandable restlessness as an acclaimed new author has led to an escape from such confining spaces in this latest effort: the transformation of a simple folk ballad into a sprawling rumination on history, hype, lore, arcana, mysticism, pop culture and the dehumanizing forces that triumph over man.

There is also a plot that attempts to tie together this extravaganza into one narrative strand. It concerns a young black journalist, J. Sutter, a two-dollar-a-word hack caught in the twilight of a mediocre career who roams to and from assignments, abusing his expense account and generally avoiding work.

He finds himself in a press junket headed for Talcott, West Virginia, where the U.S. Post Office is dedicating a stamp in honor of John Henry, the legendary railroad worker who waged a steel-driving contest against a steam drill only to die from exhaustion after his victory.

"The List": In Talcott, he meets Pamela Street who has just inherited her father's collection of John Henry memorabilia.

With & quot;The Intuitionist, & quot; Whitehead brought a certain amount of tension to the life of his heroine through corruption and scandal among rival elevator inspectors.

Here he attempts to create a similar climate with the unseen, menacing presence of & quot;the List, & quot; a publicist's log of writers that are assigned certain stories, attend all the right press parties and whose articles appear in the highest paying magazines.

While Whitehead maintains his noted dislike of straightforward storytelling, such an approach creates needless havoc when one's scope is so ambitious.

J.'s antagonism toward the List does little to create the desperately needed momentum, nor does his relationship with Pamela, which only contributes to the tangled morass of metaphor and plot reversals.

Central allegory: Hidden within all this unruliness is, of course, the central allegory of & quot;John Henry Days. & quot; Like the steam engine that drove John Henry to his death, keeping pace with the media-savvy List reduces J. to a broken, exhausted casualty of progress and expediency.

Although a certain stylistic virtuosity still prevails, Whitehead never quite draws together all his disparate elements into a single focus.

The result is an episodic and shaky piece of experimentation with enough material for several books, instead of the promised allegorical tour de force.

While & quot;The Intuitionist & quot; was greeted by critics and blurb writers as a promising start, & quot;John Henry Days & quot; may not live up to these initial expectations.

Ultimately, it is the uncovering of myth and mystery surrounding John Henry that saves this otherwise disjointed story from complete fragmentation.




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