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VOL. 45 | NO. 51 | Friday, December 17, 2021

The gift of great writing: Read Colson Whitehead

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If the ticking clock on the gift-buying season finds you still wondering what to get that discerning reader on your Christmas list, here’s an author suggestion:

Colson Whitehead.

I realize I am late to this party. Part of that is because my fiction reading tends to involve official good guys arresting criminals (e.g., Lucas Davenport) or unofficial good guys beating them to a pulp (Jack Reacher). Whitehead’s writing falls into neither category.

But he is long and much celebrated: His 2016 novel, “The Underground Railroad,” a fantasy-like reimagining of the secret network dedicated to freedom for slaves, won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

As if that weren’t enough, his 2019 novel, “The Nickel Boys,” based on a real-life, notorious reform school in Florida, also won the Pulitzer.

Before those, a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 2002, a John Dos Passos Prize in 2012, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2013, teaching stints at Princeton and Columbia, writer-in-residence at Vassar, and on and on.

More recently, the Nashville Public Library and the Nashville Public Library Foundation named him the 2021 Literary Award Winner. And as part of his visit here for that honor, he gave a public lecture at Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet High School. My wife, Kayne, went and found him “funny and self-deprecating,” two qualities high on both of our rating systems.

She bought two of his books, “The Nickel Boys” and his latest, “Harlem Shuffle.” An online review in “The Bibliofile” described the latter as “a gloriously entertaining novel of heists, shakedowns and rip-offs set in Harlem in the 1960s.” It is.

Around the time of Whitehead’s visit here, I was introduced to him through the Amazon Prime Video series based on “The Underground Railroad.”

Warning: There’s some disturbing imagery in that series. If you’re of the “Plantation Myth” school of kindly masters and their contented human chattel, this is not for you.

Actually, if you’re of that school, reality is not for you.

I found the series and its somewhat magical conceit entirely engaging. So I started reading the books Kayne bought, and quickly learned Colson Whitehead’s got game.

Also recently, and totally unrelated to Whitehead’s work, a journalist friend of mine mused in a Facebook posting about what constituted good writing. One of the responses it elicited was this:

“Good writing goes unnoticed. If you stop reading to go: ‘Man, that is nice writing,’ something’s wrong. The writing should keep you so wrapped up in the story that you feel like you are living it, not reading somebody’s words about it.”

I appreciate the sentiment. It’s the same logic that applies to one of Daddy’s dictums: The best-dressed man in the room is the one whose clothes you don’t notice. The thinking – and this applied to far more than just clothing for Daddy – is that you shouldn’t call attention to yourself.

But while I agree with its application for attire, I very much disagree with it when it comes to writing.

The problem isn’t being stopped by good writing, but being stopped by writing that wants to be good, but isn’t. In my previous life as an editor of newspaper articles we used to refer to some passages as a reporter being “writerly.” Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t.

It works for Whitehead, whose dialogue in “Harlem Shuffle” often reminded me of the laconic style of the master, Elmore Leonard. Witness this passage in which the lead character, Ray Carney, a home furnishings store owner “only slightly bent when it came to being crooked,” visited the electronics store of a fellow named Aronowitz, an occasional supplier of merchandise of dubious provenance:

There was a stack of four Silvertone TVs by the bathroom door, blonde wood Lowboy consoles, all-channel. Sears manufactured them, and Carney’s customers revered Sears from childhood, when their parents ordered from catalogs because the white men in their Southern towns wouldn’t sell to them, or jacked up the prices.

“A man brought those by yesterday,” Aronowitz said. “I was told they fell off a truck.”

“Boxes look fine.”

“A very short fall, then.”

Got all your Christmas shopping done? Or, maybe you’re the discerning reader you’d most like to please? Go ahead. Giving to yourself is still giving.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com

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