I can’t pinpoint the precise moment when I became completely enamored with Colson Whitehead’s writing, but I’m fairly certain it happened in New Orleans. I was there for a relief trip in 2006, less than one year after Hurricane Katrina devastated the region. For whatever reason, I decided Whitehead’s 2001 novel, John Henry Days, was the right book to bring along for those moments when I needed a diversion. There’s an element of satire to the novel, but it’s hardly light, frothy fare of the sort I probably could have used after a day of sorting through sun-baked wreckage. Like most of Whitehead’s work, it uses crafty invention and wry observation to scratch at larger, more daunting social ills, the sort that permanently infect the soul of the U.S. Although I couldn’t put my figure on the passage that prompted it, I hold a strong memory of sitting outside the camp where the volunteers stayed, getting in a few pages as a respite before dinner, and reading the same paragraph repeatedly, dumbstruck by the easy profundity of Whitehead’s writing.
I’ve skittered around Whitehead’s bibliography ever since, fascinated by his ability to take fanciful notions — a quasi-mystical approach to elevator inspections in The Intuitionist, make the Underground Railroad literal in the book of that title — and making them as grounded as tree roots. The boldest conceits of Whitehead’s fiction are a tool to get at deeper, tougher truths. It isn’t the analogous connections of science fiction so much as an act of shoving established reality just a little to the side of its well-worn groove, which serves to make the complications in the broad American story — particularly around race — all the starker and more unsettling. Whitehead’s narrative sleight of hand is a means to confront the reader with a suck punch forcefulness that a plain recitation of details is no longer likely to accomplish.
Despite my celebration of Whitehead’s adventuresome tweaks of the historic record and agreed-upon components of the shared culture, his language rarely indulges in the kind of flourishes that can make novels needlessly dense. There’s a crispness to his prose that recalls classic American novelists. The comparison I find myself making when reading one of Whitehead’s books is with Stephen King, whose association with genre storytelling obscures his mastery in narrative pacing and quick establishment of character. As it turns out, Whitehead identifies King as an influence, the creator that long ago stirred an aspiration to engage in the same profession. So invoking King is maybe not so bad.
I would also like to note that in The Intuitionist, his debut novel, Whitehead named a reporter character Ben Urich. I understand the in-joke signaling he was up to there, and I like that, too.