by Colson Whitehead
REVIEWED BY KYLE SMITH
The author of the hugely acclaimed novels The Intuitionist and John Henry Days, Whitehead is one of today’s sharpest young writers and the winner of a MacArthur “genius” Award (large check, no strings attached). His short, satiric third novel is about a corporate whiz kid—a young black man who never tells us his own name—who earns big bucks devising names for consumer products. Presto, and a modestly hip clothing chain becomes Outfit Outlet. Bam, and we have Apex, for a kind of adhesive bandage that comes in flesh tones to match any race.
The consultant’s biggest client is an entire town: Today it’s called Winthrop, which smacks of “three martini lunches and cholesterol.” But it’s considering a change to something for the BlackBerry age: New Prospera—”the lilting ‘a’ at the end like a rung up to affluence and wealth.”
Quiet wit (“Roger Tipple did not have a weak chin so much as a very aggressive neck,”) is a tool that Whitehead uses to ease our way into symbolism about racial injustice. The narrator discovers, for example, that Winthrop isn’t the original name of the town: It was founded by ex-slaves who dubbed it Freedom.
The send-up of branding experts is a sly way for Whitehead to introduce the idea that words can’t cover up racial hurt; names are like thin bandages over festering wounds. But if the point is well-taken it’s too simple for a writer who can see through any facade. Whitehead should broaden his scope and deliver a big, Tom Wolfe-style novel about everything.