Right about now, irony and sarcasm are pretty hot stocks. They were the magic at the center of the 1990′s most popular, and most clever, sit-com, they’re used in commercials every day to sell products, and, really, they’re a big part of everyday humor. If you’re like most people, you find irony and cynicism funny. You can enjoy it pretty much everywhere you find it, from the witty guy on ESPN to that uncle of yours who’s pretty quick. And you may even think it’s a good tool with which to critique modern America.
But, let’s go a little bit further. Let’s not only say that you enjoy the humorous application of sarcasm and irony, but you decided that sarcasm and irony were going to be your guiding principles. You were going to take them as your Gospel. You would fill every day with knowing remarks, second-guess the agenda behind even the most generous of gestures, laugh at all the sentimental scenes in movies, rant at how unrealistic TV is. Are you imagining this? If so, you are beginning to get the tiniest idea of what the press junketeers in Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days are like.
What’s John Henry Days? John Henry was a railroad man, a steel-driving ex-slave who bore a hole in a mountain so the train could get through. He’s an American myth, a legend who could work harder than any ten men combined and died moments after beating a steam-driven drill in a race. In short, John Henry was a man’s man, a strong sonofagun who never lost a
steel-driving race. He even beat the steam drill. And then he died.
In Whitehead’s book, this manly American legend becomes a stamp. The Post Office has created a series of four stamps commemorating American heroes and John Henry is one of them. In honor of the event, Talcott, West Virginia, the tiny backwater town where Henry is supposed to have made his mark, is hosting John Henry Days, a festival to coincide with the stamp’s release.
Whitehead’s press junketeers (the incredibly cynical folk) have been sent to Talcott to cover the stamp event, except that only one of them (J., our main character) is actually writing it up; the rest are just freeloading on the food, beer, and trinkets. A bunch of cynical middle-aged writers out in the country pretending to cover a two-bit hick festival, sponging off the locals and having a grand time with themselves. Yep, John Henry Days is that kind of book.
Something must be said for John Henry. The man may have been a veritable He-Man of the steel-driving circuit, but nothing could have prepared him for the metaphorical burden that Whitehead loads him up with. We’re talking quintuple-duty plus here.
First off, you have to know that Whitehead is no stranger to well-themed literature. His first novel, The Intuitionist, brought together the Great Northern Migration, African-American integration, race and disability, and African-American “passing” into a taut narrative of elevator inspectors. The main conflict was between inspectors who did things the old fashioned way, opening up the elevator and looking at its guts, versus the new intuitionists who could mystically diagnose an elevator just by feeling it. This central metaphor became the bedrock that supported, and linked with, everything else Whitehead added in.
In short, the new-old inspector conflict was a clever focal point that all of The Intuitionists major themes passed through. John Henry takes over the thematic duties this time, and in John Henry Days Whitehead has greatly expanded his reach, taking on not only the ongoing debate of African-American integration, but the commercialization of culture, an exploration of what pop culture is, how it is transmitted, and what it is for, the search for meaning in our heavily-mediated world, and a survey of what it is that is distinctly American.
Making John Henry our common point of reference for all this is wise, as it renders an intricate, sprawling book all the more comprehensible. Make no mistake, John Henry Days is a huge 400 pages. The book darts around several narratives across over 100 years, which is a lot to keep track of, even for John Henry. In fact, if this were Henry’s burden alone, Whitehead’s themes would quickly mix up like a swarm of bees. What keeps everything orderly and allows Whitehead to plays his themes off one another is Henry’s supporting cast, of which the press junket reporters are just one part.
Actually, the junket can be divided into three parts: J., One-Eye, and Misc. J. is our anti-hero, a man so tired with his life that he has decided to go on junket after junket without any break for an entire year–a Lou Gering-esque feat of junketeer endurance. One-Eye (who lost an eye in a slapstick accident) has also grown tired of a meaningless junket life, but his response is the exact opposite: he wants to remove himself from the mystical List of junket reporters. The rest of the junketeers are the sardonically black human backdrops against which J. and One-Eye are illuminated.
Whereas the junketeers come off as jerks shielding themselves with sarcasm, the other characters in John Henry Days feel more like tortured souls who imbibe sarcasm to help get by but haven’t quite become masterful like the junketeers. There’s Pamela Street, whose father was just a little obsessive-compulsive when it came to John Henry. He amassed the largest collection of John Henry-related memorabilia in the world (in his one-bedroom apartment), became a horrible parent and real weirdo in the process, and turned his apartment into a John Henry “museum” that no on ever visited. After he died, Pamela put his stuff into storage and now the city of Talcott, keen to make John Henry their ticket to rural tourist-flytrap prosperity, wants to buy the collection and put it in a new John Henry Museum. Pamela has some issues about this since she hasn’t yet figured out how to grieve for her bad father. Giving the stuff up is the logical fix, but for some reason she can’t.
There’s also the stamp collector, Alphonse Miggs. His life was so miserable and directionless that he turned to stamp collecting as a way to fill up all the hours he spent not enjoying time with his wife. He ended up specializing in railroad stamps and it’s not giving away too much of the plot to say that he plans on doing something decidedly bad at the big John Henry stamp commemoration event at the pinnacle of John Henry Days. He’s desperately trying to give his life over to something meaningful, and his wife, his job, and his stamps aren’t it.
The character traveling through the mythical John Henry isn’t a person at all; it’s the Ballad of John Henry. In a series of glimpses and remembrances, Whitehead shows this song’s century-long gestation. Throughout the 20th century, a succession of songwriters and poets add verse after verse to the ballad until it arrives at modern day Talcott, in the form of an African-American native son who sings it during the event’s invitation-only send-off. It is a force that transcends the tacky money-making festival, a viral bit of culture that managed to preserve itself against the assaults of commercialization. When the ballad is sung early on, all the junketeers and weirdoes and eager city planners in attendance for the stamp festival are momentarily taken by its poignancy.
In a sense, John Henry carries each of these characters because he is the reason they have all come to Talcott. Similarly, what John Henry represents–genuine American culture spun into content for purposes of making money–has brought each to Talcott as well. The junketeers are there because content-making is how they earn their living. Pamela is there both because the city wants her father’s collection of culture/content and because she needs to come to grips with her fear of letting go of her identity as the “daughter who hated the man who collected John Henry” in favor of figuring an identity of her own. Alphonse is there because he’s addicted to the culture/content, just like Pamela’s father was. And lastly, the song is there as some leftover part of culture that refuses to be assimilated into the capital-cash-nexus, a fragment of history that’s become so real that it defies attempts to forge simulacra of it.
There’s one last thing that has been brought to Talcott: John Henry. Actually, Henry was technically not brought to Talcott because he never left. According to the legend, he died in Talcott right after he finished off the steam drill. Subsequently, a statue was erected in his honor (now shot at for fun on Saturday night by wayward local youth), and his body is supposedly interred at a cemetery on the mountain he was drilling a hole through; however, the cemetery has long since become overgrown (literally) by weeds and it’s virtually impossible to locate anyone’s grave, including John Henry’s.
Just as the Talcott locals have made Henry the bearer of their fortune, so has Whitehead make Henry the bearer of his indictment of Talcott’s choice to make Henry the bearer of their fortune. In John Henry Days, Whitehead is exploiting American culture to attack the exploitation of American culture.
As far as this concept goes, Whitehead is a little late to the party. John Henry Days was published in 2000, roughly 20 years after a school of writing alternatively known as post-post-modern, hyperreal, or image-fiction began inhabiting the realm of and using pieces from popular culture in its fiction. Of course, just because Whitehead wasn’t around when image-fiction was getting started doesn’t mean he can’t use the style to spectacular effect. But first, some more about image-fiction.
In his essay “E Unibus Pluram,” David Foster Wallace describes image-fiction as employing the same vernacular as the postmoderns, self-conscious irony, and applying it to the realm of pop culture, especially the culture seen on television.
The new Fiction of Image uses the transient received myths of popular culture as a world in which to imagine fiction about “real,” albeit pop-mediated, characters. (emphasis in original)
By this definition, Whitehead’s fiction, especially John Henry Days fits in pretty well with the school of image-fiction. In particular, Whitehead exemplifies image-fiction in his language. He has an exceptional ability to write in the style of self-conscious irony, consistently describing everything from decrepit office anonymity to a folksy county fair in this vernacular.
The results are breathtaking: Whitehead’s book feels about as stark and dry as a book can be without inducing suicide. To get a true feel for the irony and cynicism that infuse this vernacular, you’d have to read John Henry Days for about 50 pages, or to the point that things like this sound normal: “Set above the cutting plate like a divine illumination, the red heating lamps warm the sweet meat. The red light is a beacon to the lost wayfarer, it is a tavern lamp after hours of wilderness black.” That’s dry, and Whitehead keeps it that way throughout. At one point, he even describes a city fair entirely in declarative statements.
Abstract horror for the fast walkers when they fall behind the dawdlers. Invective, calumny. Finally maneuvering around to find the agent of delay is infirm, disabled, acquitted. They split up. They are left waiting at the meeting place and despise their companions. Excuses are tendered up and down the rows.
This goes on for pages and it works because it’s all in a wry, eye-winking tone. The book is telling saying, “Look at the hicks enjoying their festival. How very rural of them,” and is sarcastically pleasant to the reader, who probably isn’t a hick. But it also hits home in the reader because Whitehead captures common experiences. We’ve all been behind annoying people who walk slow, so even as we laugh at Whitehead’s send-up of the fair, we also know that we partially laughing at ourselves. The book enmeshes the reader in the very irony that it’s made its lingua franca.
This is all very nice, but Wallace goes on to say that much of image-fiction fails because it doesn’t transcend its material. Sure, savvy writers can ridicule the contemporary world to death (and in very creative ways), but according to Wallace that’s all part of the joke: the contemporary system has co-opted self-conscious irony for its own use and, from a standpoint of critiquing the system, much image-fiction fails because it simply reinforces a vernacular that the system itself exploits to great effect. In other words, this kind of image-fiction isn�t any more creative or subversive than a low-rated sit-com, which uses the same methods and subjects to garner its cheap laughs.
John Henry Days walks right up to that boundary of co-option but doesn’t pass over. To be sure, it’s a very dark book filled with sad, pathetic people and Whitehead plays them for all they’re worth. We do laugh at these people’s expense. We’re made to mock their ways, to find pleasure in the pathetic things they do to make their lives a little less miserable. But we also identify with them and their sarcastic ways so our laughter is uneasy. Is he making fun of them or us?
It’s an unsettling kind of sarcasm, something that a sit-com, which wants to make the watcher feel special and superior, never would dare.
Further, Whitehead hasn’t written a book wholly devoid of hope. Although the majority of the people in John Henry Days are happily co-opted cynics, One-Eye, J., and Pamela each rebel in their own ways and succeed to various degrees. It’s here that Whitehead finds his hope. Earlier on I said that John Henry was made to do some heavy lifting. Well here’s a little more:
Before [the song of John Henry] came into ballad form, the men used to sing it as a work song, to keep the rhythm of their strokes. . . . They sang it like a song of resistance. They wouldn’t go out like John Henry. But maybe were condemning him instead of lamenting him. His fight was foolish because the cost was too high. . . . You could look at it and think the fight continued, that you could resist and fight the forces and you could win and it would not cost you your life because he had given his life for you. His sacrifice enables you to endure without having to give your life to your struggle.
The image of the railroad workers singing the song of John Henry to keep time and as a cautionary tale strikes me as rather much like the function of irony. Both irony and the ballad are tools to make the everyday struggle easier. However, just as the ballad keeps the railroad workers from stepping out of line, irony is also cautionary in that it keeps you from going and doing anything crazy, anything that might seem too sincere. After all, that would be uncool and you’d be exposed to the jokes of your ironic friends.
But the ballad, the entire John Henry myth, can also be seen as giving hope. It can be seen as an inspirational tale, that one railroad worker chose to do things his way, and even if he died in the struggle you, knowing what he discovered, might live. That you, who can look back on the ironic exuberance of the 60s, the decline of the ’70s, and the decadence of the ’80s, can know where that rebellion went wrong, that even though it eventually was turned into commercials and dated rock stars hawking corporate wares, you could see how their culture died (or “was co-opted”) and not do that yourself.
While reading John Henry Days, a book that often came to my mind was Don DeLillo’s Underworld. There’s good reason for this. DeLillo’s earlier White Noise and Underworld are both somber, urban tales that fit into the image-fiction camp by virtue of their obsession with pop culture and the way it is exploited in interwoven webs of people watching people. Underworld had a couple central metaphors that did the heavy lifting I’ve ascribed to John Henry and both DeLillo;s and Whitehead’s books wove these metaphors into very personal struggles, making them meaningful on several levels.
I bring DeLillo up because Underworld is a gigantic meandering book and in a lot of ways John Henry Days is like its little brother. This book sprawls far beyond its 400 pages, as Whitehead fits in bits and pieces dating from the 19th century right up to the year 2000. One section of the book, perhaps a quarter of it, is composed entirely of scenes with no logical chronological relationship from one to another. Each is wonderfully done, describing J.’s narrative, a ’30s musician adding to the John Henry’s ballad, a little girl discovering said ballad, random children from Talcott that we never hear from again, and a turn of the century professor researching the John Henry legend. It’s a strange melange that reminded me of nothing more than the seemingly-jumbled feel of Underworld.
In John Henry Days, not only is Whitehead carrying the torch for the likes of DeLillo, but he’s doing it in admirable fashion. Given the substantial success of Whitehead’s debut novel and the caliber of this follow-up, which is a great leap forward, I have extremely high expectations for whatever novel Whitehead writes next. If it’s as much of a leap as John Henry Days was, then it might just be an Underworld improved and updated in form and content for a post-9/11 world and written from an African-American perspective.
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