As ebullient as Walt Whitman and as succinct as Emily Dickinson, a young novelist (John Henry Days, 2001, etc.) looses his five senses on his native New York City—and allows the sixth some play, as well.
Whitehead makes it both difficult and easy for readers in this astonishingly evocative view of Gotham. The difficulties all arise from his poetic language. He eschews question marks, commas, and much other interior punctuation, as if to say, “Slow down. You don’t need that stuff to understand me.” And his paragraphs will drive pedantic grammarians wild (even as they will delight the liberated), for he segues smoothly from first person to second to third—in both singular and plural—as if to ask (without the question mark and comma, of course), “Hey, what’s the difference?” And yet . . . reading him is as natural (and as uncomfortable) as looking in a full-length mirror. It’s as if Whitehead has heard all of our conversations, smelled our fears, tasted our successes, recognized our falseness, tapped our phones and our fantasies, and, yes, felt our pain. The volume comprises 13 short pieces that have both a loose chronological and a cyclical sense: morning to night, arrival and departure, birth and death. Near the beginning is a piece about the Port Authority bus station that deals with bus rides, uncertainties, stresses, and arrivals in the New World of Manhattan. Near the end is a snippet about a departure from Kennedy Airport; in the air, you look back over the city, says Whitehead, and you see such a vast expanse that “you realize you were never really there at all.” In between are riffs on Central Park, the subway, rain, Broadway, Coney Island, the Brooklyn Bridge, and so on. And rippling just underneath the surface of many of the pieces are a certain sexual energy (a firm nipple here, an erection there) and some unobtrusive allusions to 9/11 (on the Brooklyn Bridge: “If it shakes it can fall”).
Poetry in paragraphs.