|Apr. 30th, 2009 12:54 pm Book #22: John Henry Days, by Colson Whitehead|
John Henry was a steel-drivin' man strong enough to break up a mountain so that the trains can come through. He beat a steam-powered hammer in a contest and then dropped dead with his hammer in his hand, or so the legend goes. Colson Whitehead (The Intuitionist and Apex Hides the Hurt) creates a strange and familiar world in the three books I've read. In John Henry Days the main character is an African-American journalist who goes from PR event to PR event freelancing and freeloading. He laughs and chats with his fellow "junketeers" at a weekend devoted to celebrating the legend of John Henry at the Big Bend Tunnel in Talcott, West Virginia.
A near death experience shakes his ambition to break the record set by a previous junketeer to go to an organized and paid for PR event every day for six months. So far J. Sutter's been going for three months solid about half way to Bobby Figgis's record.
Hundreds of people converge on John Henry Days and readers get to sit inside many of their heads. The main event is the unveiling of a stamp featuring folk heroes including the steel-drivin' man. Postal employees, town muckety-mucks, the daughter of a researcher who owned the biggest collection of John Henry paraphernalia, PR men, writers, townspeople, and stamp collectors all get their chance.
Whitehead loves language and it slides beautifully onto the pages of his quirky novels. John Henry Days won't help you decide if the man was a myth or a fleshy human, but it will absorb you and leave you with a sense of wonder.
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