From Publishers Weekly
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.
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*Starred Review* Whitehead, a MacArthur fellow, continues his shrewd and playful inquiry into the American soul in a fresh and provocative tale about a man who comes up with catchy product names. A consultant who names things yet who remains nameless, his claim to fame is the brand name Apex
for multiculturally hued Band-Aids. Curiously, he has lost a toe under peculiar circumstances that jibe with the cost of hiding the hurt, per the Apex tagline, and now, limping and moody, he arrives in Winthrop, a small town determined to rename itself. He visits with the last Winthrop, the eccentric descendant of the family that once bankrolled the town with its barbed-wire factory, and is schmoozed by Lucky, CEO of the town's current money magnet, a software company, and Regina, the town's mayor, who traces her roots to the freed slaves who founded the town and called it Freedom
. As his stoic hero broods over Winthrop's mixed and vaguely menacing messages, Whitehead marvels over the inventive extravagance and frenzy of American commercialism. Kindred spirit to Stanley Elkin, William Gaddis, and Paul Auster, Whitehead archly explicates the philosophy of excess and the poetics of ludicrousness, and he incisively assesses the power inherent in the act of naming. Donna SeamanCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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