This second novel by the author of The Underground Railroad retells and expands upon the 19th century folkloric figure of John Henry, a black laborer for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad endowed with superhuman strength. Henry's narrative is juxtaposed with that of a late 20th century journalist who travels to West Virginia to cover a celebration of the legendary man.
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.