Whitehead has greatly expanded his reach, taking on not only the ongoing debate of African-American integration, but the commercialization of culture, an exploration of what pop culture is, how it is transmitted, and what it is for, the search for meaning in our heavily-mediated world, and a survey of what it is that is distinctly American ... John Henry Days fits in pretty well with the school of image-fiction. In particular, Whitehead exemplifies image-fiction in his language. He has an exceptional ability to write in the style of self-conscious irony, consistently describing everything from decrepit office anonymity to a folksy county fair in this vernacular. The results are breathtaking: Whitehead’s book feels about as stark and dry as a book can be without inducing suicide ... It’s an unsettling kind of sarcasm, something that a sit-com, which wants to make the watcher feel special and superior, never would dare. Further, Whitehead hasn’t written a book wholly devoid of hope ... In John Henry Days, not only is Whitehead carrying the torch for the likes of DeLillo, but he’s doing it in admirable fashion.
Chief among the pleasures of John Henry Days is the zest with which Whitehead nails the world of pop-commerce publicity and its paid disseminators ... John Henry Days is funny and wise and sumptuously written, but it's only rarely a page turner. There is very little story to speak of beyond the pageant, the scripted performance, of the eponymous event ... Whitehead writes compellingly about John Henry himself, about the first black folklorist to investigate his legend and about a midcentury blues singer who is induced, via drink and dollars, to cut a recording of 'John Henry' ... Unfortunately, in his pursuit of the exhaustive, Whitehead also serves up an unremarkable bio of Paul Robeson ... Just when you're about to give up on the book, though, you hit another of Whitehead's outstanding comic riffs ... Again and again, you hit passages of wry and largehearted descriptive prose that are the clearest measure of Whitehead's achievement and promise as a writer ... Whitehead manages, what's more, to wrest from the book's essentially static structure a lovely, satisfying ending. John Henry Days may end up haunting you the way 'The Ballad of John Henry' haunts its pages. The novel is an aleatory fugue on the difficulty of manhood in an age that measures a man by what he buys or what he wears, not by his labor, not even by his human decency.
This blithely gifted writer’s second novel...is longer and more various [than his first], and also slacker and more diffuse. His hip wit sits on the narrative less as delicious icing than as a nervous burden; self-consciousness threatens to block every simple feeling ... With the serial ingenuity of Ulysses, a medley of voices and short scenes in a virtuosic variety of styles seeks to encompass a mighty but elusive subject ... the apparently mighty theme of John Henry, though attacked from every angle, refuses to yield a unifying resonance that would incorporate J. Sutter and his very contemporary predicament ... In John Henry Days, the sepia mood has produced an ambitious, finely chiseled work frustratingly vague in its resolution. At the end, the novel falls into the jackhammer prose of old newsreel voice-overs, and delivers what is either the best-disguised happy ending or the most muffled tragic note of the publishing season.
Whether John Henry himself existed is uncertain, though Whitehead weaves every scrap of information about him he can find into the narrative, in both fictional and documentary form. Which accounts in part for the novel’s bulk, as much a feature of Postmodern fiction as its unrelenting self-consciousness ... These passages of research are interspersed not merely with the narrative but with comparably detailed documentary material ... All this research holds back the narrative, robbing it of suspense and forward momentum ... Also undeveloped, or developed only minimally, is J.’s attraction to Pamela Street, daughter of an obsessive collector of John Henry memorabilia ... Though the ending is left open, we never feel that J. has the power to reform his life or escape it, or that Pamela offers any alternative. Neither character has much of an internal life, the sort that might offer a counterweight to the soullessness and superficiality of modernity ... The absence of dramatized choices in the novel is a flaw, however, as well as a theme. Whitehead wants it both ways: he wants to write a humanist as well as a Postmodern epic ... The pleasures and insights of the novel are in its sharp and funny touches, especially in the satire of the junketeers. Moments in the fictionalized chapters on John Henry have a quiet spareness, and real ingenuity underpins several of the multiple allusions to the legend. Yet there is also overwriting ... we see Whitehead straining to meet the demands of the ambitious second novel.
Whitehead...throws a lot of things on the wall, hoping that if they don't all stick, at least they'll slide into consciousness for a while ... But however ambitious or multilayered this novel is, the reader may get stuck trying to decipher just what Whitehead is trying to say in this thing. In a meandering 389 pages he takes his time in composing the novel's myriad characters and situations, switching eras within chapters whenever he feels like it ... Whitehead often goes into directions that aren't that enticing. For every narrative piece the reader plows through fluidly, like the Sutter story, there are others that grind the book to a deadening halt. In theory Days has a brilliant, inviting premise. But once you get into the book the novelty wears off quickly. But it shouldn't be said that Whitehead doesn't know what he's doing as a novelist ... Whitehead knows how to mesh the quirky with the urbane ... if there is one thing the reader gets from reading John Henry Days, it's that density doesn't necessarily make for good storytelling.
... an inventive, funny, and bittersweet inquiry into the significance of folk hero John Henry ... Masterfully composed and full of myth and magic, Whitehead’s great American novel considers such dualities as nature and civilization, legend and history, black and white, and altruism and greed, while deftly skewering the absurdities of the information age.
... a tornado-like narrative storm ... Whitehead...has the early DeLillo's sense for the sinister underside of Americana, combined with historical consciousness of the African-American middle-class in the post–civil rights era. Smart, learned and soaringly ambitious, his second novel consolidates his position as one of the leading writers of serious fiction of his generation.
Whitehead...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 ... 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.