Whitehead, author of the acclaimed Intuitionist (1998), returns with a hilarious, heart-tugging take on the evolution of the American folk hero John Henry—and on the theme of inevitability, or the power of fate.
African-American J. Sutter is a “junketeer,” a freelance journalist who specializes in covering publicity events. Along with his junketeer colleagues, J. excels at finagling his expense account and mooching in general as a way of life. But lately another goal drives him. It’s his quest to beat the junketeer record of nonstop event coverage set by the legendary Bobby Figgis, an aim that has led him into the John Henry Days Festival assignment. The manic, jaded lives of the junketeers form the main line of Whitehead’s busy story—and then there’s a surreal tale told by a junketeer about the murder of the black man by Hell’s Angels at the Stones’s Altamont concert, a tale that just pops up out of nowhere, real Tarantino-like and fateful. But in the tradition of fiction like Doctorow’s Ragtime, Whitehead follows many narrative strings and colorful folk from different eras to explore his theme. Some of those characters come together at the festival in Talcott, West Virginia, a town outside of the Big Bend Tunnel where John Henry supposedly met his Waterloo in his race against the steam drill. Of them all, J.’s path will cross most dramatically with those of Pamela Street, a young black woman who has come to Talcott to meet with the prospective buyer of her dead father’s extensive, obsessively acquired John Henry memorabilia collection; and of Alphonse Miggs, a collector of commemorative stamps who saved J.’s life in an outrageous prime-rib choking incident. Further still, Whitehead spins off riveting stories about John Henry himself, the scholars who traced his legend, and the singers and peddlers who popularized the John Henry ballad.
Thoughtful, amusing tale-spinning with, one imagines, serious film potential.