If writers can be divided between those who love to pontificate about their work and those who would prefer to talk about almost anything else, Colson Whitehead falls solidly among the latter. Slim and affably unassuming, the 31-year-old novelist is wrapping up the book tour that‘s kept him from his Brooklyn home for the last 10 days. ”I miss my couch,“ he admits in an interview over lunch at a dimly lit Westside steak house. But Whitehead gets downright uncomfortable when questioned in any depth about his latest novel, John Henry Days. Asked about the implications of a 13-page digression on the Hell’s Angels‘ murder of a black Rolling Stones fan at Altamont, he is resolutely silent for a long, long moment, his lips pursed behind a goatee. Then his mouth relaxes into a smile and he breaks into a deep, free laugh, a looser version of the nervous chuckle that punctuates his speech. ”There are a lot of different interpretations,“ he allows, and briefly offers a couple — you could talk about the end of the counterculture, he says, or ”about historical black sacrifice in order to build the culture, so from tobacco plantations to railroads to the very blues-derived songs that the Rolling Stones are singing, there’s black blood being shed. I don‘t mean to be vague, but what I like about the story is you can have different interpretations,“ Whitehead apologizes. ”I am trying to leave it open.“
He needn’t worry. There is plenty of room for interpretation in John Henry Days, a rich, multitiered novel featuring more than a dozen characters, two narrative strands divisible into countless subplots, and a generous sampling of styles. The legend of John Henry provides the back story — John Henry, of course, being the black folk hero who ”died with his hammer in his hand“ after besting a steam-powered drill in a contest to determine which could dig through a mountain faster, man or machine. The novel‘s main strand, though, is the story of J. Sutter, a freelance journalist and ”junketeer“ who lives off the bounty of PR-firm handouts, and who is engaged in a contest of his own — as absurd as John Henry’s was heroic — to attend at least one media event a day, feeding from the trough of hype longer than any hack has before. As part of his quest, J. is flown to rural West Virginia, the site of John Henry‘s epic stand and, now, of a festival marking the unveiling of a John Henry postage stamp.
Among other things — a lot of them — John Henry Days is a brilliant, cutting satire of ”life under pop,“ a sustained skewering of the media minions hired to shore up the hegemony of hype with great buttresses of printed puffery. Joining J. are such beasts as One Eye, ”blinded in a tragic ironic quotes accident a few years before,“ and the unforgettable, obese Tiny, ”a creature who has evolved into the perfect mooching machine . . . He sucks up freebies in a banquet room like a baleen whale inhaling colonies of hapless plankton, swooping primeval and perfect, eyelids blinking slowly in the unlit fathoms of media.“
Whitehead himself freelanced for several years, two of them as a TV columnist for The Village Voice, but, to his credit, he never climbed to the heights of hackdom in which J. and company so unhappily soar. ”I was a really bad freelancer,“ Whitehead says. ”Whenever I tried to break out and pitch something it always sounded ridiculous to the editors, and then when they gave me an assignment to do something, I could never get the exact calibration of the magazine’s voice. I was like, ‘It’s a dumb magazine, but they pay a dollar a word,‘ so then I would try to do a kind of hacky piece that I’d think they would like, and it would be too dumb. It was hard to find the right calibration of crappiness.“
So he never got free CDs from the record companies, despite writing record reviews, and never got invited to the ”cool book parties“ like the one he mercilessly parodies for more than a dozen uproarious pages, never got sent on cushy junkets for postage stamps or anything else. ”The one time I was flown someplace,“ Whitehead says, ”was to talk to this new band called Afro-Plane out of Atlanta,“ for Spin. It was decidedly unglitzy, even by John Henry Days‘ standards of all-night parties at FAO Schwartz to celebrate the release of a new Barbie with a vaginal cleft. ”I had to hang out with them for like two and a half days, and after an hour of it we had nothing to say to each other. They were just high teenagers, and my interviewing skills are very poor, so there was nothing to talk about. I just hung around with them. We’d go out to eat, and we‘d stop at KFC because one guy wanted to go to KFC, but we couldn’t all go there because one guy wanted to go to Taco Bell, so we‘d have to drive half an hour to Taco Bell. Two and a half hours later, we finally got all our food.“
If he counts himself a failure as a journalist (though penning a column for The Voice at the tender age of 25 hardly rates as catastrophe), Whitehead can’t be quite as self-effacing about his career as a novelist. Though inspired by comics and sci-fi since he was a boy, he didn‘t begin writing fiction in earnest until the mid-’90s. (”I did write some short stories“ while in college, he says, but only about three of them, and ”they were really bad depressed-teenager stories. They were really crappy.“) His first novel, ”a media satire about a child star, kind of Gary Coleman–esque, 10 years later, hanging around“ remains unpublished, but he quickly followed it with 1999‘s The Intuitionist, a ferociously imaginative fable about warring bands of elevator inspectors and the search for the perfect elevator, which had some critics comparing him to both Ralph Ellison and Thomas Pynchon. ”Until it came out, I thought if anything it was going to be a culty, kind of weird, word-of-mouth book, and not something that got that much critical attention.“
John Henry Days, in many ways more ambitious than The Intuitionist, has been almost universally well-received. One of Whitehead’s literary heroes, Ishmael Reed, smothered him in praise in the Washington Post (”I was surprised. It was cool,“ Whitehead allows), and John Updike somewhat patronizingly labeled him ”the young African-American writer to watch“ in The New Yorker. The novel has been a long time coming. Whitehead was first exposed to John Henry in the third or fourth grade, when he saw a cartoon about the legend in school. ”They showed it to us like three times, actually. Every year they‘d show it, I guess maybe when the teachers were hung over.“ Goofy as it was, it made an impression. ”There weren’t a lot of black superheroes. There was Muhammad Ali, but there were no cartoon superheroes.“ As soon as he started writing fiction, Whitehead says, he knew he would one day write about John Henry.
In elementary school, Whitehead didn‘t give much thought to the tragic ambiguities of the legend, and the cartoon hardly dwelled on them. ”Back then I thought, ’Oh, he wins. He‘s a great guy.’“ The John Henry of the novel, though, is a tragic, almost Christ-like figure, walking bravely into a contest he knows will be the death of him. But since, as Whitehead puts it, ”That John Henry kind of stuff doesn‘t really exist anymore,“ he is also literally reduced to the size of a postage stamp, another victim of the soul-stultifying kitsch that provides the basis for so much of our popular culture. The implicit parallel of John Henry’s and J.‘s missions — ”John Henry’s shoveling dirt out of the mountain, and J. is shoveling puff pieces“ — only drills the point home.
But in person, Whitehead, a self-confessed ”media junkie“ and pop devotee, doesn‘t rant at all about the emptiness of pop culture; he repeatedly resists taking the conversational bait offering him opportunities to do so. Finally, asked directly about the destructiveness of what he calls ”the brittle dominion of irony,“ Whitehead pauses between bites. ”For the culture as a whole,“ he says, ”there’s probably no hope.“ Hearing himself, Whitehead laughs at his pronouncement and quickly qualifies it. ”But individuals can try to step out of the loop and find their own space.“ Satisfied, Whitehead looks back down at his plate and resumes slicing his steak.