A Ballad for All Times John Henry Days brilliantly contrasts the rhythms of a grassroots legend and modern-day hype

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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 (Fourth Estate; 389 pages). 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 in Whitehead's second novel-race in America, the trials of assimilation facing aspiring blacks-but only a coolly confident writer would dangle such alluring bait before potential reviewers. Whitehead won't get a bite here.

John Henry Days indeed tackles a great amount of material but without any signs of overreaching or strain. The novel ripples outward from a central event: a three-day festival in Talcott, West Virginia, commemorating the legendary black railroad worker who outhammered a steam drill but died in victory. Many of the ballads about John Henry place the epic battle he waged with the machine in nearby Big Bend Tunnel, and Talcott residents hope that John Henry Days will become an annual and tourist-friendly attraction.

Advising them, for a fee, is a canny Manhattan p.r. mogul named Lucien Joyce, who lures some journalists to the event with the usual promises of complimentary travel, lodgings, food and booze. One of these veteran junketeers is J. Sutter, an African-American freelancer who has been covering, on someone else's tab, staged events every day for three months. Why not, he asks himself, just keep going until he breaks the freeloading record, whatever that is?

In the meantime, Sutter must endure and write up this Talcott festival for his Internet employer of the moment: "A bloodless edit will follow ... and one day an electronic burp with his byline will float up into the Web morass, a little bubble of content he will never see."

An early flash-forward in the novel reveals that the Talcott weekend celebrations will end in an act of violence. But this seed of suspense never really sprouts into page-turning anticipation. John Henry Days evolves in a circular, not a forward, momentum. The contemporary, confected media hype is contrasted, implicitly, throughout the book with the older, mysterious, grassroots spread of the tale of John Henry, who may have died in the early 1870s but who is as impossible to identify historically as Odysseus or Robin Hood. As one character notes, "The Ballad of John Henry has picked up freight from every work camp, wharf and saloon in this land; its route is wherever men work and live, and now its cars brim with what the men have hoisted aboard, their passions and dreams."

All of Whitehead's main characters, starting but by no means ending with Sutter, are so hip and ironic and jaded that they can't imagine-indeed, they would be embarrassed by and scornful of-the meaning of the novel they inhabit. John Henry Days is a narrative tour de force that astonishes on almost every page, but it generates more glitter and brilliance than warmth.