The Evolving Ballad of Colson Whitehead, Writer

NEWSDAY

Say the name: Colson Whitehead. Say it again. Now close your eyes and play a word-association game. What kind of person does that name call to mind? A radio pitchman whose elegant British accent makes you want to buy a car with a price tag the size of a mortgage? A Fortune 500 CEO and weekend yachtsman? A tuxedo-clad gentleman about to whirl his lady around a ballroom?

Now open your eyes. Here's Colson Whitehead himself describing a recent experience at Villanova. He's about to read a passage from his first novel, "The Intuitionist," to a class of undergraduates. Let's just say it's a novel about an elevator inspector and about rising in the world.

"Cool shoes, man!" several of the kids shout at him. Whitehead smiles back his shyly appreciative, what-am-I-doing-here smile. That his novel is actually appearing on college reading lists he finds "so bizarre."

And the shoes propping up his skinny, all-arms-and-legs body? They're what he calls his "hipster kind of shoes . . . kind of weird bowling-type shoes." So he's not surprised by the collegiate attention to his footwear. "I'm not projecting that vibe of statesmanship, which, of course, I cannot," he says. And here's Colson Whitehead as described by John Updike in a recent issue of the New Yorker: "The young African American writer to watch may well be a 31-year-old Harvard graduate with the vivid name of Colson Whitehead."

This is the opening sentence of Updike's review of Whitehead's new novel, "John Henry Days" (Doubleday), which contrasts the hard life of the hammer-swinging, 19th century railroad worker with the false glitter of contemporary "lifestyles," represented by J. Sutter, an African American freelance journalist. It's a big, ambitious book with a lot more on its mind than black life alone--among other things, the search for authenticity, the passages from folk to written to pop culture, the myriad ways in which people struggle against "the machine."

So how does Whitehead respond to this assessment from America's Grand Old Man of Letters? "If you look at it positively, it's kind of an anointing," he says, before adding with a laugh, "but it's kind of a pat on the head."

Whitehead proudly wears the tag "black writer," but he doesn't want it to mean that his books and ideas are segregated into "black literature" sections of bookstores, let alone readers' minds.

Yes, Whitehead does recall Updike's phrase for his talent: "blithely gifted." "I'm embarrassed to have it memorized." In return, he suggests with a mischievous grin, he might just buy Updike's next book. "We'll see. I hear he's a talented Anglo American writer."

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Well before Updike's pronouncement, the literary world had discerned loads of talent in the young author of 1999's "The Intuitionist." A cerebral, surreal gloss on the detective novel, it made Whitehead a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for first fiction and winner of a $35,000 Whiting Award, given to emerging writers.

"John Henry Days" has only intensified the glow of the spotlight. In the New York Times Book Review, for instance, the book was called "funny and wise and sumptuously written." 'The Los Angeles Times called it "a compendium of magnificent writing, haunting images and clever phrases."

Ther critics agree, however, that in reaching for the epic--with numerous flashbacks, for instance, to a Tin Pan Alley songwriter churning out a commercial version of "John Henry" and Paul Robeson starring in a Broadway adaptation--Whitehead is not always in control of his disparate materials.

Much of the new book can be seen as condemnation of the all-devouring hype at the defining center of contemporary culture. J. Sutter is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist bent on establishing a new record among fellow "junketeers" for consecutive days spent covering pointless PR "events." Hence his presence at the unveiling of the U.S. stamp honoring John Henry in Talcott, W.Va., where legend has it that the railroad worker won a race against a mechanical steam drill, and then died from his exertions.

Given the novel's preoccupation with media glare, Whitehead is keenly aware that the half-life of the Next New Thing is dizzyingly short. "It's not always going to be like this," he says at a restaurant table near his Fort Greene, Brooklyn, apartment. Hip-hop blares from passing cars, and packs of schoolchildren head homeward in the afternoon sunshine.

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Whitehead grew up in a middle-class household on the Upper West Side. Arch and Mary Ann Whitehead owned an executive recruiting firm they founded in the '60s. Colson, the third of their four children, never attended a public school. His prep school was nearby Trinity, his college Harvard. An avid reader of comic books and science fiction, he initially envisioned himself working in those genres. It wasn't until he arrived at Harvard that his ambitions struck out in a more sophisticated direction.

"The Intuitionist" shows the influence of Ralph Ellison and Thomas Pynchon, Paul Auster and Charles Johnson. He also cites "the stylistic eccentricities" of Ishmael Reed and Toni Morrison and the absurdist dramas of Pirandello, Ionesco and Beckett. Whitehead hastens to mention as well the persisting impact of Marvel Comics, "a hidden inspiration for a lot of writers of our generation" that few talk about because "it's so geeky and a little too low."

Ellison, author of "Invisible Man," remains the great touchstone. He was, Whitehead says, "the first African American writer I read who really played with form. He could be hyper-realistic and then surreal from chapter to chapter. . . . There was something hanging out behind the words. And what's that? That's literature."

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After graduation from Harvard in 1991, Whitehead began a five-year stint at the Village Voice. Starting as an editorial assistant for the Voice Literary Supplement, he eventually worked up to television critic. "I wanted to be one of these multidisciplinary critics," he says, "who is doing music one day, TV the next and books the next."

In the meantime, Whitehead had begun the novel that would become "The Intuitionist."

He was getting moral support from Natasha Stovall, a writer-photographer he met at the Voice. They were married last fall.

He also briefly amused himself with a Web site, Nat Turner Overdrive (named for the leader of a slave rebellion) that he and a friend , Gary Dauphin, devised to articulate their views about "a broader and more diverse African American pop culture."

The novel's protagonist, Lila Mae Watson, is a "colored" elevator inspector in a city like New York in the pre-civil-rights-era 1930s and '40s. Her labor union is divided between Empiricists, who rely on facts and figures, and Intuitionists like her, who possess an uncanny ability to sense when elevators are unsafe. For all her extra-rational gifts, she is nonetheless a goal-directed straight arrow compared to the undisciplined, free-spirited J. Sutter of "John Henry Days." It's intriguing to think of him as one of her errant grandchildren.

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Always busy with the next project, Whitehead was halfway through "John Henry Days" by the time "The Intuitionist" was published. John Henry had been embedded in his imagination ever since his fourth-grade teacher showed the class a cartoon of the folk hero.

"I was into cartoons," he says, "but I'd never seen black people in a cartoon, and one who was larger than life and fighting the machine. I didn't know how to feel about it. Did he win or lose?"

That ambiguity is central to John Henry's novelistic appeal. As is his hazy reality. Was he an actual historical figure, or a mythical response to the arrival of the Industrial Age? Hence the many versions of "The Ballad of John Henry." As the book notes, "Think he really lived and he's more human; deposit a smile on his face and beads of sweat or tears running down his cheek. Think he's legend and muscles slide under fantastic limbs, the mountain shudders and birds flee branches each time the hammer comes down."

Folklorists say the evidence is unclear. Certainly, ex-slaves like John Henry did much of the hard labor that laid down railroad track and blasted through mountains to create tunnels. Henry was said to be a "gandy dancer," whose job was to drive steel drills into rock to make holes for explosive charges.

The steam drills of the 1860s and 1870s were so primitive that a giant of a man might well have been faster. Accurate or not, legend places the great duel in about 1870 near the West Virginia hamlet of Talcott, where the Chesapeake & Ohio was blasting out Big Bend Tunnel. So that's where the U.S. Postal Service issued its John Henry stamp in 1996 and where Whitehead sets his novel.

"John Henry Days" sweeps back and forth between characters and voices and eras to strike the universal theme of man versus machine. John Henry himself and Whitehead's anonymous balladeer, blues singer and Tin Pan Alley songwriter all have to deal with the confusions of change. "Access to information, to music or any kind of culture, is getting faster and faster and more streamlined," Whitehead says.

"At each juncture people are thrown into tumult and have to adapt or die." J. Sutter exemplifies mass culture run amok in the Age of Pop. He and his fellow junketeers are willing devotees of hype, believers in nothing but irony. Far from being aberrations, Whitehead writes, they are in some ways "quintessential Americans. . . . They want and want now and someone else is picking up the check."

"In the same way that people can relate to John Henry even though they aren't steel drivers," he says, "I think they can relate to J. as people overloaded with information. How not to be consumed by pop culture, by all the hype that surrounds us."

Having been nearly consumed by the heavy lifting of "John Henry Days," Colson Whitehead is taking it easy. Well, sort of. He's already at work on another novel: "I was looking for some fun after the stylistic variety of 'John Henry.' " What's it about? Band-Aids, says the author, hinting at the ambiguities and racial dilemmas inherent in the term "flesh-colored." Band-Aids, pogo sticks, whatever--if it's by Colson Whitehead, expect the unexpected.

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