2006_04_arts_whitehead.jpgI once had a mediocre writing teacher tell our class that every story can be boiled down to one of two plots: Hero Goes On a Journey or Stranger Comes To Town. Of course, I think she was being simplistic to a fault, but if Colson Whitehead’s novels redeem her assertion at all, then I owe her an apology. I have the luck to have read his entire corpus of fiction – The Intuitionist and John Henry Days – before coming to his latest work, Apex Hides the Hurt. It was a rare treat for me, to see the progression and consistency of themes and style, not to mention the excellently-executed tricks in his bag of them.

But before I get to Apex, I must confess – I didn’t love John Henry Days the way I loved The Intuitionist. Whitehead’s debut novel was the kind of book I loaned to everyone I knew. The sparse language, the bizarre overlaps between Whitehead’s nameless metropolis and New York City, the delicate but damning threads of racial allegory and the story itself – a irreparable rift in the world of elevator inspectors – kept me captivated. With John Henry Days, I felt tossed about, the sarcasm and satire laid on a little too thick for my taste at times, with a narrator I never loved the way I loved The Intuitionist’s Lila Mae.

So it was with some trepidation that I pushed past the first twenty pages of Apex, which reminded me far more of John Henry Days. The “Stranger Comes to Town” story line is this – our nameless narrator is a nomenclature consultant, formerly employed by a monolithic agency that named products the world over, most notably the multicultural adhesive bandage called Apex, with skin tones ranging the world over. Apex Hides the Hurt was their tagline, the bandages a cultural currency that took our narrator to the top of his game before an accident involving his toe took him away from work and society. He arrives in Winthrop, a tiny town in a nameless state out West, to help the triumvirate Town Council decide on a new name for the town of Winthrop.

There’s a wide spectrum between the Silicon Valley software whiz kid who wants to change the name to New Prospera and the descendant of Winthrop himself who wants to keep the family name in play. And many of the people caught in that spectrum are black. Because like The Intuitionist, like John Henry Days, race will out in Whitehead’s books. Whitehead lets you sit there deciphering the clues, the implications, about our narrator and the third member of Town Council – Regina Goode, a descendant of the freed slaves that founded the town itself and gave it their own emblematic name.

Before I realized it, I was completely hooked. Themes notwithstanding, Apex isn’t like either book before it. It has the gentle tensions of The Intuitionist, it has the outsider perspective like John Henry Days, but the similarities end there. One of the things I found so striking and new about Apex Hides the Hurt was the humor – often bitter, but humor nonetheless – through which our narrator views this town and its struggles. I’m not saying either prior book wasn’t funny. Okay, I am. I delighted in this guy - his ribbing of everything from the stainless steel universality of coffee at “Admiral Java” (think Starbucks) and the infectious radio-friendly hip hop tune “Peep This” (think Outkast’s “Hey Ya”), his self-deprecation and above all, his bemused detachment of marketing, truth, and everything on the spectrum in between. And I get the feeling Whitehead liked him too.

Not that this affection stood between Whitehead and his inexorable push towards his own themes, his own Pyrrhic victories over race and prejudice. We are not allowed to miss the train – Whitehead wants you to know of the inherent falseness of names, the compromises we make to keep living, to prosper. He wants you to know this outside-ness of the black experience in America and in Apex, he only distracts you with his affably grumpy narrator as long as it takes you to be completely hooked. And then you can’t politely turn away from this almost sudden undercurrent of rage, of disillusionment.

So perhaps Whitehead can stand amongst those rare novelists who can be writing about the same thing from different angles and not exhaust their own material. It’s not a praise I bestow lightly – there is nothing more exhausting than what I exasperatedly refer to as the Thomas Hardy Syndrome: a whole corpus of work hammering at the same theme. With Apex Hides the Hurt, Whitehead has added something completely new –a different angle of nomenclature and marketing and falsehoods – to a story he’s told before. It’s not easy, or common. So Thomas Hardy Syndrome notwithstanding, some do it well. And perhaps, three novels in, Whitehead has earned that accolade.