From the MacArthur and Whiting Award-winning author of John Henry Days and The Intuitionist comes a new, brisk, comic tour de force about identity, history, and the adhesive bandage industry When the citizens of Winthrop needed a new name for their town, they did what anyone would do-they hired a consultant. The protagonist of Apex Hides the Hurt is a nomenclature consultant. If you want just the right name for your new product, whether it be automobile or antidepressant, sneaker or spoon, he's the man to get the job done. Wardrobe lack pizzazz Come to the Outfit Outlet. Always the wallflower at social gatherings Try Loquacia. And of course, whenever you take a fall, reach for Apex, because Apex Hides the Hurt. Apex is his crowning achievement, the multicultural bandage that has revolutionized the adhesive bandage industry. "Flesh-colored" be damned-no matter what your skin tone is-Apex will match it, or your money back. After leaving his job (following a mysterious misfortune), his expertise is called upon by the town of Winthrop.
Following the novels The Intuitionist (1998) and John Henry Days (2001), and the nonfiction The Colossus of New York (2004), a paean to New York City, Whitehead disappoints in this intriguingly conceived but static tale of a small town with an identity crisis. A conspicuously unnamed African-American "nomenclature consultant" has had big success in branding Apex bandages, which come in custom shades to match any skin tone. The "hurt" of the Apex tag line is deviously resonant, poetically invoking banal scrapes and deep-seated, historical injustice; both types of wounds are festering in the town of Winthrop, which looks like a midwestern anytown but was founded by ex-slaves migrating during Reconstruction. Winthrop's town council, locked in a dispute over the town's name, have called in the protagonist to decide. Of the three council members, Mayor Regina Goode, who is black and a descendant of the town's founders, wants to revert to the town's original name, Freedom. "Lucky" Aberdine, a white local boy turned software magnate, favors the professionally crafted New Prospera; and no-visible-means-of-support "Uncle Albie" Winthrop (also white) sees no sense in changing the town's long-standing name-which, of course, happens to be his own. Quirky what's-in-a-name -style pontificating follows, and it often feels as if Whitehead is just thinking out loud as the nomenclature consultant weighs the arguments, meets the citizens and worries over the mysterious "misfortune" that has recently shaken his faith in his work (and even taken one of his toes). The Apex backstory spins out in a slow, retrospective treatment that competes with the town's travails. The bickering runs its course listlessly, and a last-minute discovery provides a convenient, bittersweet resolution. Whitehead's third novel attempts to confront a very large problem: How can a society progress while keeping a real sense of history-when a language for that history doesn't exist and progress itself seems bankrupt But he doesn't give the problem enough room enough to develop, and none of his characters is rich enough to give it weight. (Mar.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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January 01, 2007
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Excerpt from Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead
HE CAME UP WITH the names. They were good times. He came up with the names and like any good parent he knocked them around to teach them life lessons. He bent them to see if they'd break, he dragged them behind cars by heavy metal chains, he exposed them to high temperatures for extended periods of time. Sometimes consonants broke off and left angry vowels on the laboratory tables. How else was he to know if they were ready for what the world had in store for them?
Those were good times. In the office they greeted each other with Hey and Hey, man and slapped each other on the back a lot. In the coffee room they threw the names around like weekenders tossing softballs. Clunker names fell with a thud on the ground. Hey, what do you think of this one? They brainstormed, bullshitted, performed assorted chicanery, and then sometimes they hit one out of the park. Sometimes they broke through to the other side and came up with something so spectacular and unexpected, so appropriate to the particular thing waiting, that the others could only stand in awe. You joined the hall of legends.
It was the kind of business where there were a lot of Eureka stories. Much of the work went on in the subconscious level. He was making connections between things without thinking and then, bam on the subway scratching a nose, or bam bam while stubbing a toe on the curb. Floating in neon before him was the name. When the products flopped, he told himself it was because of the marketing people. It was the stupid public. The crap-ass thing itself. Never the name because what he did was perfect.
Sometimes he had to say the name even though he knew it was fucked up, just to hear how fucked up it was. Everyone had their off days. Sometimes it was contagious. The weather turned bad and they had to suffer through a month of suffixes. Rummaging through the stores down below, they hung the staple kickers on a word: they -ex'ed it, they -it'ed it, they stuck good ole -ol on it. They waited for the wind.
Sometimes he came up with a name that didn't fit the client but would one day be perfect for something else, and these he kept away from the world, reassuring them over the long years, his lovely homely daughters. When their princes arrived it was a glorious occasion. A good name did not dry up and get old. It waited for its intended.