Plummeting Deep into Cold Pop

Zachary Leader

  • John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead
    Fourth Estate, 389 pp, £12.00, June 2001, ISBN 1 84115 569 1

Colson Whitehead’s first novel, The Intuitionist (1999), won several prizes and extravagant praise from American critics. Whitehead is black and comparisons were made to Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison and Ishmael Reed. John Updike has called him ‘blithely gifted’, ‘the young African-American writer to watch’. Whitehead’s new novel, John Henry Days, is longer and more ambitious than The Intuitionist, and the suggestion in its title of mythic black strength and suffering, together with its encyclopedic range, raise epic expectations. Is this that most elusive of leviathans, a black Moby-Dick, the Great African-American Novel? If the answer disappoints, it does so teasingly, in some ways hearteningly. Though the novel’s central figures are black, racial themes are quickly woven – submerged – into a larger cultural critique. The names that now come to mind, some also cited by readers of the earlier novel, are DeLillo, Pynchon, Foster Wallace, Powers, the totalising Postmodernists. The new novel’s formal and thematic features connect it to a recognisable trend in contemporary American fiction, as do its strengths and weaknesses. Like its present-day (as opposed to its other, legendary) black hero, it is thoroughly assimilated.

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