“John Henry Days” by Colson Whitehead


File under the heading “Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time”:

For one of my three book groups, I picked an author, rather than one book to read, so we’re having a sort of literary Colson Whitehead potluck where people could read Intuitionist, John Henry Days, or Zone One. But, as the moderator, that meant I had to read all 3 in the month before the Morning News Tournament of Books, which I’m much rather be reading nerdishly for.

John Henry Days centers on a freelance journalist, J Sutter, who goes to cover an event celebrating the legend. We’re told early on there’s a murder, and then the book hops here and there (rather in the manner that a legend accretes) telling J’s and John Henry’s and the ballad’s stories.

John Henry Days
is a bigger and much more ambitious book than The Intuitionist. Interestingly, I preferred the latter. this one was a bit too big, sprawled a bit too much, and I felt like Whitehead and his editor were too reluctant to kill his darlings (edit out precious but unnecessary sentences). From Jonathan Franzen’s review at the New York TimesFreeloading Man“:

Unfortunately, in his pursuit of the exhaustive, Whitehead also serves up …half a dozen other interludes that read, at times, like the work of somebody getting $2 a word.

If Franzen says you’re too wordy, that’s something to pay attention to.

But, Franzen also says that just when you are frustrated you stumble across a sentence or passage or chapter that draws you back in, despite the rambling and un-urgent narrative. I found this absolutely true.

Impressive, often entertaining (one bit about air quotes will stay with me for life), but a little too wordy, and a little too cerebral and lacking in emotion, for me to urge it on all and sundry.

Comments are closed.