Shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize in 2002, this excellent novel by Colson Whitehead is concerned with race, tradition and the value of devoting oneself to a cause.
The John Henry of the title is a hero of American folk legend. He was a freed slave and railroad worker who raced and beat a steam-powered hammer, only to drop dead immediately afterwards. His story was adopted in a range of folk and blues songs and made famous by the likes of Leadbelly, Johnny Cash and Woody Guthrie.
Whitehead's novel is set in the late 1990s, with Henry about to be commemorated on a postage stamp. A handful of journalists have travelled to Talcott, West Virginia - where Henry is thought to have died - for the unveiling ceremony and the start of a new annual festival - John Henry Days. The few journalists who have made the trip are the hardcore 'junketeers', those who will show up to pretty much anything as long as the food and drink are free and they get paid for turning in a puff piece about it. Sometimes they don't even bother turning in the puff piece.
Central among them is J Sutter, who entered journalism with high ideals but now finds himself trying to set a record for the longest streak of promotional events he can attend. He's little more than a shill for the PR industry and seems, if not happy, then at least numbed to that fact. He's also concerned about the racism he might face on his first visit to the South but he goes anyway.
Whitehead parallels Sutter's choices with those of John Henry as he prepares for his race against the steam hammer. They seem to contrast at first. As a former slave, Henry has few options if a machine takes his job from him. There's a certain nobility to his decision, despite its ultimate futility. Sutter meanwhile has surrendered to PR, a different kind of machine but a machine nonetheless. While Henry fought the industrial age, Sutter, writing an article for a new website, is being consumed by the digital age. However, it's hard to see Sutter's choice as a noble one. He surely has more control of his fate than Henry?
Is Whitehead making a point about the things that we devote ourselves to? He introduces a character who found meaning in life by collecting stamps. It's a meaningless hobby and an unexpectedly destructive one. Another character devotes his life to turning his house into a John Henry museum but nobody ever visits. Is his life wasted if nobody sees his work?
Numerous other characters appear, many of them just once, to shed light on the growth and spread of the John Henry legend. We get a glimpse of the folk song being written, spend a night with a Tin Pan Alley writer who needs a hit song and follow an academic who travels to Talcott to learn more about the legend but finds himself barred by racism.
One of the highlights of the book is the story of the Rolling Stones gig at Altamont, as narrated by one of Sutter's friends. It's as good as the best rock music writing I've read and it's clearly no coincidence that the centrepiece of the scene is the fatal stabbing of Meredith Hunter, an 18-year-old black man.
Whitehead does a fantastic job of bringing each of his characters to life. I found myself hoping that many of the one-off characters would return. However, Whitehead uses them for just as long as he needs them. This patchwork effect, in which Whitehead tells one story with many voices, is the book's crowning achievement.
It's wonderfully well-written, intellectually and emotionally engaging and thoroughly enjoyable. It's also frequently very funny. I would happily have read another 400 pages.