Whitehead Revisited

“There’s always an attack on the sophomore novel from some quarters,” says novelist Colson Whitehead, sitting outdoors at a Fort Greene restaurant a few blocks from his home. “I do make fun of a certain kind of critic and a certain kind of journalist,” he adds, gesticulating in sharp angles, all skinny elbows and arms in pale-green vintage short sleeves. “So they may not appreciate some of the stuff in this book.”

Whitehead, a Harvard-educated Upper West Side native and former TV critic for The Village Voice, knows the ebb and flow of the hype cycle all too well; he even kicks off his raucous, sprawling second novel, John Henry Days, with a klatsch of freeloading journalists on a junket. As they sit around a banquet table chugging free liquor and gorging on prime rib, they consider the “three discrete schools of puff.” There’s “Bob’s Debut” – “Bob” being any profilee – followed by the inevitably disappointing “Bob Returns” and, just as inevitably, “Bob’s Comeback.”

Whitehead scored in his Debut phase at the age of 29 with his first published novel, The Intuitionist, a mysterious, scrupulously detailed allegory about racial uplift and generational conflict that concerned a rift between rival schools of elevator inspectors. True to the conventions of “Bob’s Debut,” Whitehead was celebrated in reviews and profiles as an heir to Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison (Time) or, if you prefer, Joseph Heller and Thomas Pynchon (San Francisco Chronicle). English and African-American-studies course syllabi were quickly revised. “On the paperback tour,” Whitehead says, incredulous, “I met students who had been assigned my book – and I wasn’t much older than them.”

Now 31, with his second book ready to hit the shelves later this month, Whitehead himself enters the perilous “Bob Returns” phase. That’s when, his narrator explains, a critic may snipe that Bob’s second novel is “somehow lacking – emboldened by success he tries to tackle too much… .” The curse of the overly ambitious second novel is a tired old trope, but, as Whitehead’s friend and “fellow shut-in,” the novelist Myla Goldberg, says, “He just didn’t listen – he just wrote what he was going to write.”

The hugely ambitious result is a complex investigation into the legend of the steel-driving folk hero that has publishing insiders crowing that he’s done it again.

“It wasn’t like I thought, I’m scared. Now I’ve really got to follow this up,” he says. “John Henry Days was already half in the can before my first book came out, so I’d already started something that was big and sprawling – I just had to finish it.”

When he finished the intuitionist in 1997, Whitehead had no reason to believe that the book would go anywhere at all. He had been dumped by his literary agent after his first manuscript was rejected by dozens of publishers. “It was a kind of pop-culture-heavy book about a child-genius cherub, Michael Jackson-Gary Coleman type,” Whitehead explains. “He’s not a midget, but he gets plugged into all sorts of stereotypical black roles until he becomes a sort of super-bad-ass Shaft character.”

Bummed when the book failed to sell, he says, he went back to freelancing about “Bobs” like Tabitha Soren and famous weathermen (“Al Roker: God of Thunder”) to pay the bills. He and fellow writer Gary Dauphin diverted themselves with “Nat Turner Overdrive,” their satirical Website. “We had an ‘Ask Nat’ advice column,” Whitehead admits, chuckling. And the theory about a Caribbean cola that makes black men impotent? “That was Gary!” Whitehead claims. “Well, that one might have been me.”

Then he moved to San Francisco with his wife, Natasha Stovall, a photographer and former Village Voice crony. Frustrated, he found a job working for a Bay Area dot-com, writing “40-word blurbs about Web events. You know: ‘Cuckoo for Cockatoos? Come down to the pet chat at petplanet.com!’ ” Whitehead laughs, rocking the ice in his Orangina. “I mean, I’d written two novels and been an actual critic – then I was writing this? But I had nothing to do, so I just did a lot of Web searches on John Henry.”

Whitehead’s first novel felt almost as claustrophobic as the small boxes that were so often the novel’s settings. It was an intense, controlled work, similar to the heroic John Henry described in his new book: “Like the reverse of dynamite: noise and fire, white light, these elements flying not apart but together into a compact thing.”

In John Henry Days, the implosive force of the first novel is turned outward. Whitehead clashes information-age dislocation and industrial-age heroism in a riotous narrative to probe the legacy of the man he calls “the first black superhero I ever knew.” The cast of characters includes J., the protagonist, a discontented content-providing freelancer; Pamela, a young woman whose late father compulsively collected John Henry memorabilia in his Harlem apartment; Alphonse, a homicidal stamp collector obsessed with trains; Paul Robeson, who once played John Henry in an ill-fated Broadway show; and the blues and Tin Pan Alley musicians who made a living singing songs about John Henry’s life. The novel will surely be read as an attempted vault into the epic literary realm of E. L. Doctorow and of Ralph Ellison, to whom Whitehead is most often compared.

“We want to be careful about overdoing all the comparisons to Ellison, though,” warns writer and Yale professor Robert Stepto, who recently assigned The Intuitionist to cap his twentieth-century lecture course in African-American literature. “Whitehead is not a derivative writer.”

“You feel like he could write about anything,” says Motherless Brooklyn author Jonathan Lethem. “It’s encouraging to see him biting off larger chunks of the world.”

On the brink of the publication of John Henry, Whitehead is busy at work on two more books. “I’m working on a novel about Band-Aids,” he confides. That may not exactly be a larger chunk of the world, but it might just be off-beat enough to set the stage for Bob’s Comeback.

Whitehead Revisited