The latest issue in the American Folk Heroes series, a John Henry stamp, will be unveiled in the little town of Talcott, West Virginia, where John Henry is thought to have worked and died. The first annual "John Henry Days" festival brings a variety of people to town: J. Sutter, a young black journalist who is in the middle of a record "junketeering" run (in which free-lance journalists zip across the country on a steady diet of assignments, free food, and other receipted expenses they can get reimbursed); Pamela Street, whose father was a John Henry memorabilia collector and died 6 months before, so she hopes to sell all his stuff to Talcott; Alphonse Miggs, railroad stamp collector; "One-Eye," an older junketeer who sourly mentors Sutter; and many other residents of and visitors to the town. Whitehead's terrific narrative leaps easily about in time, not only through his contemporary characters' lives, but with single chapter visits to other personages whose lives intersect with the legend of John Henry and the town of Talcott: stage actor and political activist Paul Robeson performing in a 1940 bomb musical about Henry; Moses the bluesman whose song about Henry gets recorded earlier in the century; Jake Rose, a Jewish song plugger on Tin Pan Alley who aspires to make his name as a composer at the turn of the 20th century; Sutter's Mom Jennifer struggling with her piano lessons in the 1950s and happening upon an old, beat-up piece of sheet music of Jake Rose's "Ballad of John Henry." There are even short chapters about John Henry himself. The writing is skilled, beautiful, and often drily witty. A terrific followup to Whitehead's shorter, atmospheric debut about elevator inspectors, _The Intuitionist_.
This report prepared by David Loftus