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apex hides the hurt

1 May 2006

Colson Whitehead's fourth book, Apex Hides the Hurt, is a short, compact novel about the surreal nature of contemporary corporate and civic life. Long on wry observation, it is shorter on plot and character invention, but it complements Whitehead's earlier books well.

Whitehead's protagonist is a significantly nameless nomenclature consultant. For The Intuitionist, Whitehead invented the profession of intuitive elevator inspector; for Apex, he invents a corporate niche where consultants come up not with product ideas or even advertising slogans, but simply with the names of products. This consultant has quickly reached the top of his field and suffered just as quick a fall from grace, for reasons that only become evident as the main story plays out in counterpoint to his backstory.

Freelancing now, the protagonist is summoned to a somewhere-in-the-Southwest town, founded by freedmen after the Civil War (echoing Toni Morrison's Ruby in Paradise, perhaps). The black founders had named the town Freedom; a white entrepreneur had renamed it Winthrop, after himself; another white entrepreneur now wants to rename it New Prospera, on the advice of the protagonist's former employers. The city council is at an impasse over the three names, and they have turned to the protagonist to mediate their conflict.

He's somewhat like Paris called upon to choose which of the three goddesses is the fairest, but no bribes are in the offing, and the protagonist is not all that corruptible. He is more artist than politician, and his compass is the inherent rightness of the name itself. In the case of consumer goods, he is used to operating with Adamic freedom, but here in Winthrop or whatever it's called, there's a history to consider, and much of the novel's 212 pages are taken up with learning that history so that he can arrive at the right nomenclature.

The Intuitionist invents a weird alternate world and fleshes it out with great energy. John Henry Days, Whitehead's second novel, is a masterpiece of detailed realistic observation. By contrast, The Colossus of New York, though it's about a city that Whitehead knows intimately (and uses brilliantly in John Henry Days), is disappointingly abstract. The abstraction continues in Apex Hides the Hurt, which is set both in generic small-town America and in a generic corporate metropolis. The corporate boosters of New Prospera, busy inflating an Enron-like bubble out of their own enthusiasm, are stock characters, but Whitehead succeeds better with Winthrop, the scion of the town's eponymous barbed-wire family.

He succeeds best with his protagonist and alter ego, the black, Ivy-educated protagonist with a flair for the absurd and a gift for language. As in John Henry Days, this almost-hero wanders into a bizarre America he'd rather never have learned about, and learns something about himself in the process.

Whitehead, Colson. Apex Hides the Hurt. New York: Doubleday, 2006.