High-concept tale of a nameless namer

Review Novel


Apex Hides the Hurt

Colson Whitehead

Doubleday / 224 pages / $22.95

We'll start with the essentials: Do not read this book.

Not yet, anyway. Not unless you're already a Colson Whitehead fan - and you know who you are. If you're not, put down the newspaper and go to your neighborhood bookstore (my house remains an Amazon-free zone) and get The Intuitionist, Whitehead's first novel.

The Intuitionist is possibly the only novel about rival elevator inspectors. It's also a startlingly unlikely pulp fiction debate between, yes, intuitionists and empiricists. And what it is, mostly, is a dazzling meditation on race. That's not bad for a first novel: Ralph Ellison as told by Dashiell Hammett.

Now you're ready to move on to John Henry Days, Whitehead's second. Whitehead introduces what he has called his ironic black male narrator, a freelance writer whose quest is to set a record for consecutive days junketeering. This book has steel-drivin' truthiness about it - about myth and marketing, about myth and myth-making, about myth and folk songs.

Now, finally, you're ready to read Apex Hides the Hurt, Whitehead's latest effort. Because if you had started with Apex, you might have stopped there too. You wouldn't get Whitehead. You wouldn't appreciate the full range of his talent. You wouldn't understand that he's a Don DeLillo in waiting or that's he a book away from a breakthrough success - just not this book.

It's not that Apex is a bad novel. It's just not the one we're waiting for.

Sure, it's smart and funny in places and, wisely, short. The ironic black narrator, in this case, is a nomenclature expert, meaning he names products. Someone has to come up with, say, Almond Joy or Alka-Seltzer or iPod - small "i" and large "P."

Names matter. Our nomenclature expert says what is unnamable is unknowable: "Some might say a rose by any other name, but he didn't go in for that kind of crap. That was crazy talk. Bad for business, bad for morale."

Namelessness matters, too. Our narrator is nameless throughout the book. What we know is that he has suffered a misfortune - his name for it - that involves a missing toe. And, we're meant to guess, it also involves the product that brought him his fortune.

Apex is his name for a flesh-colored bandage, marketed to match any kind of flesh. With the bandage, any injury looks as if nature intended it that way. The sales campaign says that Apex hides the hurt. It works, multiculturally speaking. Certainly, there's enough hurt to go around.

Our hero has a talent for names. In the book, it's more like a tic, or a form of Tourette's (Namittes syndrome?). It's also a living. He gets an emergency call for a name for a car. Put a Q in it, he advises. And a Q is enough for America to start buying.

We learn all this as we travel with our narrator, who finds himself in a Midwestern town called Winthrop, which is considering a new name. The town council is split and, of course, they've called in Mr. Apex. And there's your plot device.

Winthrop was named for the man who brought a barbed-wire factory to town. It was settled, though, by freed blacks just after the Civil War. They earned the right to name their own town, but the name was lost - not to history but to commerce. Can it be reclaimed? What do you think?

Albie Winthrop, the last of the Winthrops, has lost everything but his name. The future belongs to Lucky Aberdeen, who has made a dot-com fortune and who sees the past as a marketing tool with an expiration date. He wants to call the place New Prospera.

And then there is Regina Goode, descended from the slave families who left the plantation in search of a new life, who wants the lost name restored.

Our narrator has to make decisions: about the town, about himself, if he can fend off the accusing bartender at his hotel - think Morgan Freeman with an attitude - and survive Lucky's real estate barbecue.

OK, the novel is high concept in which the concept overwhelms everything else. What is there left to learn about the evils of marketing? But the book is no misfortune. Think of it as a way station on the way to something much better.

I can't wait to see what Whitehead calls it.

Mike Littwin is a columnist for the Rocky Mountain News.

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