By Colson Whitehead
Doubleday, 273 pp., $24.95
On this past January’s third Tuesday, Barack H. Obama was sworn in as president of the United States. On its fourth Tuesday, John H. Updike died at the age of 76.
I have no doubt the old man savored the gravity and relief of life in that first and final septimana mirabilis in our transformed republic—which is why it’s with no minor trepidation that I point to a review he wrote for the May 7, 2001, issue of The New Yorker.
Updike began, “The young African-American writer to watch may well be a thirty-one-year-old Harvard graduate with the vivid name of Colson Whitehead.” The piece proceeded, in this opening paragraph (and the next), to steam-shovel praise on The Intuitionist, Mr. Whitehead’s “strikingly original and polished début.”
Regular readers (and writers) of upper-middlebrow Anglophone criticism can guess what happens next: With his admiration duly noted, Updike pivots from The Intuitionist to John Henry Days, the actual topic at hand and a follow-up novel that we learn disappoints in the manner congenital to ambitious sophomores—it’s “longer and more various, and also slacker and more diffuse” than its predecessor, with Mr. Whitehead’s “hip wit sit[ing] on the narrative less as delicious icing than as a nervous burden.”
Updike would seem to bend the narrative arc of his essay to a familiar, lesson-learned take-away: To wit, Colson Whitehead will remain a writer to watch (and presumably just as African-American, if less young), so long as John Henry Days chastens him into a tighter discipline over his as-yet-uneven talent. And Updike indeed says more or less all that in his conclusion, but also something else that snapped back this reader’s neck, or at least his pupils, in double take. After noting the odd inconsequence of J. Sutter, the young, black, journalist-for-hire protagonist of John Henry Days—inconsequence, that is, compared to the folk hero of the title, and “the prophetic thunders and righteous wrath of Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Du Bois and Richard Wright and James Baldwin”—Rabbit Angstrom’s creator musingly questions the literary import of ordinary lives: “As assimilation and integration achieve their dilutions and ironies, what remains worth fighting for? How does a black man save his soul? Fortunate black citizens are now privileged to share the moral inconsequence of the entire society; this is progress of a sort, but not necessarily aesthetic progress.”
Three months after Updike’s, another review of John Henry Days appeared, written by James Wood. In the pages of The New Republic, Mr. Wood introduced Mr. Whitehead’s novel as the “African American version” of Don DeLillo’s Underworld. After the perfunctory (and, of course, dexterously lovely) avowals of the author’s “talent,” the review moved to a discussion of language, whereupon Mr. Wood’s close reading calibrated its microscope focus, remarkably, on Mr. Whitehead’s (lack of) command of standard English. “Whitehead writes what might best be called interesting prose—extraordinarily uneven, and sometimes barely comprehensible, not to mention smutted with inexplicable solecisms. … Errors are corrigible, and certainly forgivable; but error is sewn deep into the prose here, and is not easily unpicked.”
Here, Mr. Wood—who, contra Updike, hardly acknowledges the extra-textual problems, or existence, of race—occasioned a physiological response that only begins in the neck. It’s not the issue he takes with John Henry Days’ colloquialisms that elicits cringing; it’s the recurring assumption that Mr. Whitehead is not a stylist making choices when he alofts on flights of the ungrammatical (“that little song that always works isn’t today”), but rather simply doesn’t know better.
The young Presbyterian-American writer to watch, imagining there can only be one, would not exactly be watched like this.
AS IT HAPPENS, John Henry Days, a 2002 Pulitzer Prize finalist, does tack, as both critics say, toward the overwritten, and –wrought, and –long. But in framing these critiques, their reviews ratified the novel’s core social and psychological insight: namely, that the persistence of racial identity in 21st-century America is most directly experienced in, and against, its absence.
Mr. Whitehead’s fiction is thus paradigmatically “racial” only insofar as it suspends, dispends and upends static racial markers. Updike came close to seeing the game in 2001, noting that “the disgusted junketeer J. Sutter, need not be black at all. His discontent might just as well be that of a young white or Asian-American of literary bent.” (True enough.) But the recognition quickly becomes lament: For reasons noble and otherwise, it seems the lion simply could not bring himself to accept a gifted black writer uninterested in claiming the righteous mantel, the thunderous birthright, of Douglas, Du Bois, Wright and Baldwin.
Would that it were possible for him to read Sag Harbor! Deceptively modest and extraordinarily assured, Mr. Whitehead’s new novel, set in 1985, recounts three months in the life of 15-year-old Benji Cooper. A wry and circumspect narrator, Benji is surrounded by a phalanx of other black boys—and a small advance squadron of girls—variably initiated into the worlds of cars, sex, politics and beer. With little visible strain, he re-creates the gaseous specificity that fills whatever space teenage boredom allows it: Benji and his friends close-read rap lyrics, practice streetwise handshakes (“Slam, grip, flutter, snap. Or was it slam, flutter, grip, snap?”) and improvise hilariously baroque takedowns (“You fuckin’ Kunta Kinte-lookin’ motherfucker … with your monkey ass.”). The first hairlines of adult fissures appear: Once inseparable, Benji separates from his brother Reggie; less centrally, a boy named Bobby becomes the group’s first militant, developing “a fondness for using the phrases ‘white-identified’ and ‘false consciousness’ while watching The Cosby Show.”