Books: A Ballad for All Times

John Henry Days brilliantly contrasts the rhythms of a grassroots legend and modern-day hype

Having won admiring reviews for his first novel, The Intuitionist (1999), Colson Whitehead must now face the higher hurdle of a literary career: a second novel, which, unlike its predecessor, will confront enhanced expectations and thus the possibility of falling short. If this prospect ever intimidated Whitehead, no hint of nervousness appears in his rousing John Henry Days (Doubleday; 389 pages; $24.95). In fact, one of the novel's many characters muses on a hypothetical "second novel, recapitulating some of the first's themes, somehow lacking" because the similarly hypothetical author "tries to tackle too much." As it happens, there is some recapitulation...

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