The Underground Railroad
(Random House, 2016)
Imagine being as broadly good at anything as Colson Whitehead is at writing. The Intuitionist is still an all-time top-ten debut novel, and his follow-up, John Henry Days, was as strong as any sophomore outing. Did he next write a third novel and solidify his place as a preeminent fictioneer? Course not: he hung left and wrote The Colossus of New York, a non-fiction E.B. White-ish piece celebrating his home. But then he did come back, with Apex Hides the Hurt, which, like his first two novels, considered broad agendas and issues—race, predominantly, and the haunting legacy (and current reality) of slavery, inequality, and discrimination in the US. He then hung another left and wrote Sag Harbor, a small-scale and personal story, and then, even harder left, he came out with Zone One, a post-apocalyptic zombie-outbreak novel. And then? Then he wrote The Noble Hustle, a poker memoir that was as much about his own self-loathing as it was poker.
In all his books, the writing is so good you can forgive a lot. I care not a whit for post-apocalyptic stuff but I hardly disliked Zone One; I didn’t enjoy The Noble Hustle in any broad way, but it read a little like taking the Ferrari with no trunk space to a grocery store might feel—it's probably not a perfect form-function match, but it gets the job done in a strangely classy but maybe not smart way. In the same way McCartney seems constitutionally unable to crap out much less than a snap-along-to-able pop song, Whitehead seems doomed to write ferociously good sentences.
However, at least to this reader, there’s been a wandering since his start. The wandering’s been great for us readers, of course—we get this breadth of glory, so many great reads—and yet it's impossible to go back to The Intuitionist and not see that it’s Whitehead's hardest book. I don't know how to describe this hardness: it’s certainly not cold or anything, the novel's not, but it's fairly brutal: there are people, and there’s a system, and the book is a tracking of how those two abstractions battle. Part of the diminishing I feel in John Henry Days and Apex Hides the Hurt have to do with the fact that the systems or institutions the folks are pushing against move from the more structured (and, honestly, interesting) elevator-inspector-world of The Intuitionist to broader, softer edged stuff (journalism in John Henry Days, advertising in Apex Hides the Hurt). To be clear, they’re not at all bad books; it’s just that they feel somehow softer, less needled and ferocious than Intuitionist.
I’m writing this as Whitehead is up for the National Book Award for his newest, The Underground Railroad, which he seems likely to win (though I think Bacheldor’s The Throwback Special is equally good, equally deserving), which is simply to say I'm hardly alone in finding The Underground Railroad to be among the very best books that've come out this year. More than that, though, the book feels like Whitehead flexing the same muscle and flash he showed in The Intuitionist, writing unapologetically about race in America and nixing the sort of self-consciousness that sometimes got in the way in Apex and John Henry.
The Underground Railroad in The Underground Railroad is literal: the book is set in the pre-Emancipation south, and Cora, our heroine, runs away from the Georgia plantation we meet her at, convinced to flee by another slave named Caesar. They make it, and are aided in their escape by a white sympathizer who brings them to the secret location of a literal underground railroad. The book’s tremendous leading up to the moment, but once you’re on page 67, you will, if you’re like me, read the following in complete astonishment:
“You have two choices. We have a train leaving in one hour and another in six hours. Not the most convenient schedule. Would that our passengers could time their arrivals more appropriately, but we operate under certain constraints.
“The next one," Cora said, standing. There was no question.
“The trick of it is, they're not going to the same place,” Lumbly said. “One’s going one way and the other…”
“To where?” Cora asked.
“Away from here, that’s all I can tell you. You understand the difficulties in communicating all the changes in the routes. Locals, expresses, what station’s closed down, where they’re extending the heading. The problem is that one destination may be more to your liking than another. Stations are discovered, lines discontinued. You won't know what waits above until you pull in.”
After that, down the page on 68, you get this:
“Every state is different,” Lumbly was saying. “Each one a state of possibility, with its own customs and way of doing things. Moving through them, you'll see the breadth of the country before you reach your final stop.”
As the most recent presidential election has shown, we’re wise to listen when folks make their intentions plain. Also like the most recent presidential election, even when we have a clear understanding of what's likely to happen, the feelings that hit when what’s been described finally transpires are almost always way, way bigger than you might have imagined they’d be. It’s among the oldest tricks: how does something take one's breath away with surprise even when we know what's coming?
That’s a long and overwrought way of saying that those two passages above give the whole of The Underground Railroad: Cora escapes, traveling to South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Indiana, discovering in each state a bizarre and shocking new set of circumstances African Americans are subject to. To whit: South Caronlina’s essentially one giant Tuskegee experiment, the black folks there given “freedom” so long as they submit to certain white-established measures. North Carolina has made it illegal to be black, period—there can be no black people in the state. As a current Hoosier who finds his state more full of hatred and despair than any other state I’ve ever lived in or visited, it’s odd that Indiana presents here the realm in which we witness Cora at her most free, but such is life.
It should be noted, too, that Cora this whole time is actively running from Ridgeway, a bounty hunting slave tracker who, having failed to nab Cora’s mother Mabel when she herself ran away, has quite the shoulder chip. Whitehead endows the guy with enough depth that you don't simply hate him or loathe him, as you would a Bad Guy. It’s actually worse: you understand him; he’s the 1940s German soldier following orders. Be more! you want to beg of the guy.
Interspersed throughout the book, as well, are brief chapters that act as mini biographies of a sort, about Cora’s mother and grandmother, about Ridgeway and Ceasar. Interspersed through everything—they appear at the start of chapters—are small square blocks of text; these are missing slave announcements, sprung from Whitehead’s mind or copied down from history I’m not sure; they’re harrowing.
Because that’s what the book is: as much as everything else—a moving portrait of a complex cast of characters; a strange and shocking surrealist take on the ugliest aspect of the American enterprise; a plot-driven page-turner of the literary variety—The Underground Railround is a harrowing. A reckoning. I’m a thirty-eight-year-old lucky white guy and I’ve known since I began knowing anything that slavery existed, that people were treated as objects, that it was terrible, and I don’t know if it was my own failure of imagination or Whitehead’s vivid/razor/diamond prose, but the end of this book found me shook anew by what was done a century and a half back. I do’'t know how one comes through the book not shaken all the way down by the atrocities, the horror of it; I can’t imagine a book that might be more sadly useful in reminding us how far we’ve come, and how tenuous this progress we believe we’ve made might be.
WESTON CUTTER is from Minnesota and is the author of You'd Be A Stranger, Too (BlazeVOX Books, 2010) and All Black Everything (New Michigan Press, 2012).