Colson Whitehead's first book, The Intuitionist, reshuffled reality to bring us an amazingly witty and complex tale about, of all things, pre-Civil Rights race relations and elevator inspectors in a fictional metropolis. For his second book, Whitehead's created John Henry Days, a book overflowing with parallel tales of men driving themselves to perform the ultimate, be it driving steel through a mountain with a hammer, writing Tin Pan Alley hits or hitting at least one press event every day for a year in order to write bad copy for online travel magazines.
Like most American kids, Whitehead grew up with the ballad of John Henry, celebrating a 19th-century "black superhero" who died making a stand against the white man's machines. Whitehead found the idea for a novel about the well-sung hero percolating in his mind while stuck at a day job writing an online company's blurbs. "There was only about one hour of work to do each day," Whitehead told WW, "and the rest of the eight-hour shift had to be filled." So Whitehead spent the downtime surfing websites and boning up on John Henry facts.
Nonetheless, imagination took precedence over research, particularly in building the complex, macho-cowboy-loser society of freelance press junketeers at the center of the book. "The junketeers are a bunch of jerks, and very fun to write about," Whitehead says. One scene in particular, in which the junketeers literally choke down free food at the John Henry Days banquet in rural Talcott, W. Va., has a vicious humor to it that's shocking after the dry wit of The Intuitionist. The cocky, "Stock Ironic Black Character" protagonist, J. Sutter, is often the butt of Whitehead's elaborate jokes.
When asked about the role of humor in his work, Whitehead responds, "The humor in The Intuitionist is mostly deadpan, but I think that's the nature of the book. It's all beneath the surface. Plus I was trying to maintain a straight face while talking about a ridiculous subject--elevator inspectors as the saviors of the city. The deadpan jokes help the reader ease into this surreal world." By comparison, he said, "John Henry Days is all over the place, and it allows for a lot of different kinds of jokes, from satire to slapstick, depending on the character and situation in question."
So what's next for the master of the Stock Ironic Black Character®? "In the past when I've read about people who were working on a lot of different things at once, I always thought, 'What a load of crap,'" admits Whitehead. "But now I'm working on an assortment of weird little projects, and it's very refreshing to mix it up." As for his unpublished first manuscript ("a kind of pop-culture-heavy book about a child-genius cherub, Michael Jackson-Gary Coleman type, who gets plugged into all sorts of stereotypical black roles until he becomes a sort of super-bad-ass Shaft character"), Whitehead won't be publishing it any time soon. "Over the years I've cannibalized every good line or image from it," the author confesses, "so now it's just a bloody carcass with a bunch of ribs sticking out of it."
John Henry Days
By Colson Whitehead
(Doubleday, 448 pages, $24.95)
Whitehead reads at Powell's, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Thursday, June 14.
by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday, 255 pages, $11.95)