I can’t get that song about that steel-drivin’ man out of my head. John Henry told his captain:

Captain go back to town
And bring me back two twenty-pound hammers
And I’ll sure beat your steam drill down. Lord, Lord,
And I’ll sure beat your steam drill down.

Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days will do that to you. You’ll probably walk away from the novel with five or six versions of the old folk song jumbled up together in your mind, until you’re not sure if Polly Ann wore blue or if she drove steel like a man, Lord, Lord. But the confusion will be be worth it.

John Henry Days is Whitehead’s second novel. He won critical acclaim for his first, The Intuitionist, a story about, of all things, the contrasting philosophies of rival elevator inspectors. Whitehead claims his next work will be about Band-Aids. This one’s about a stamp. Is he kidding? Not really. At 31, Whitehead is already a fine literary craftsman. He’s the kind of writer who can make the most mundane subject riveting. But this novel about a mythical man who raced a machine is anything but mundane.

In the novel, plausibly enough, the U.S. Post Office has decided to issue a stamp honoring the legendary John Henry, the black folk hero who supposedly drove steel on the Chesapeake and Ohio railroad. According to the songs, John Henry raced against a steam drill and won, but died from the strain (with his hammer in his hand, Lord, Lord). The stamp release coincides with a small-town festival in Talcott, W. Va. It seems that John Henry was probably from around Talcott, if he ever actually existed. In any case, the Big Bend Tunnel near Talcott is named in most versions of the song as the sight of the fateful race. So the placid citizens of this New South backwater get out their daddies’ conductor’s caps and set up concession stands to honor a possibly fictional former slave. After all, it’s good for business: The Talcott motor lodge is fully booked all weekend, for the first time ever.

The motel guests pretty much aren’t from around there. Mostly, they’re a bunch of sketchy fluff magazine hacks, from nowhere really, but circulating between New York and Los Angeles and any points between where hype crops up. The protagonist, J., is one of these losers–or junketeers, as he calls them. He’s been on a three-month streak of professional freeloading, drifting from movie premiere to album release to paperweight promotion, scarfing up the buffets and watching the celebrities with a jaded eye. This gig is slumming, even for him, but it’s paid for by someone else, which is all he cares about. (You can guess what J. stands for, by the way, but Whitehead isn’t telling.) Not too long ago, J. was a promising young black journalist, but he has devolved into a freelance mooch, cruising airport floors for receipts to pad his expense sheet.

J.’s colleagues are equally cynical has-beens. Whitehead sends up media types with obvious glee, making these guys, who have names like Frenchie and One Eye, both fascinating and repugnant. “One Eye had been blinded in a tragic ironic quotes accident a few years before,” Whitehead observes, deadpan. About another hack, he writes: “Dave Brown’s byline is a roach whose gradual infestation of the world’s print media can only be sketchily documented.” As the novel progresses, the junketeers become a kind of Greek chorus commenting on the battle for J.’s soul.

Meanwhile, in another century, John Henry fights the mountain that waits to kill him. He sleeps in his shack, saves his pay for the woman he left behind, endures the white bosses’ abuse, dreams the mountain is gushing blood beneath his drill. In the chapters and generations between John Henry and J., hobos and Tin Pan Alley composers add verses to snatches of old songs. In a beautiful chapter, Paul Robeson plays the steel-drivin’ man on Broadway. A black folklorist goes to Talcott to trace the legend, door after door slamming in his face. A hardware store owner in Harlem becomes obsessed with John Henry memorabilia, stuffing his house with statues, sheet music and 20-pound hammers. His daughter shows up at the Talcott Motor Lodge with his ashes in a jar. A homicidal collector of railroad stamps shows up, too. The motel owner’s wife prowls the rooms when no one is there, looking for signs of the ghost. A railroad tycoon recounts his laudanum dreams. Fragments of lost Americas drift pass and vanish. John Henry Days is ambitious, full of echoed themes and unanswered questions: If “a man ain’t nothin’ but a man,” is he less than a machine? Is the homogenizing machine of modern media as ominous as that steam drill? Where is J.’s hammer? What mountain will crush him, and when?

At first, the way the book leapfrogs through time and place is frustrating. Characters show up for a fervent chapter, then are never seen again. For some reason, Dave the Hack recounts his up-close-and-personal story of the Hell’s Angels at Altamont. (“I was there,” he intones at intervals, about all major events of his generation.) Does it tie in at all? At some point, you just give up and let this railroad take you wherever it’s going.

And it goes to some gorgeous places. Whitehead deftly moves between satire and the sublime. He sends up the crackheads who hover around the bodega in J.’s Brooklyn neighborhood, but he makes them human. He is exuberantly funny at the expense of the New York celebrity circuit. In one chapter, J. wanders distracted through a release party for a novel called A Chiropodist in Pangea. “There was some question as to whether it would be categorized as fiction or nonfiction. Someone had to finish it first,” Colson writes. The party is a squirming mix of sad and funny satirical stereotypes: “The recently liposucked found their palms falling farther than usual to pat new and improved thighs and at this sensation their eyes widened in astonishment, which was taken for animated interest by the food critic, who continued to describe Chef Jean-Phillipe’s cassoulet. Those who longed for the days of the Algonquin round table could think of nothing witty to say because they were not witty people.”

When he turns his eye to the small-town fair in West Virginia, Whitehead is equally observant, but more forgiving. Some of the best chapters in the novel simply revel in a place or event, turning setting into a kind of riff on human nature. At the fair:

Abstract horror for the fast walkers when they fall behind dawdlers. Invective, calumny. Finally maneuvering around to find the agent of delay is infirm, disabled, acquitted. They split up. They are left waiting at the meeting places and despise their companions. Excuses are tendered up and down the rows. You see that man hold something you want and wonder where he got it, what booth. She wants him to hold her hand and he keeps finding reasons to withdraw it, to look for change, check his watch. Out here all exposed. A mother disciplines her child and bystanders pronounce it abuse, but what can they do. Put that down, come over here, don’t bother the nice lady. The soda is undercarbonated. Stingy, bubble-wise. You should have gone yourself, you ask for a Coke and they come back with orange drink. No one understands the martyrdom of the volunteers for the trip to food concession.

Whitehead seems to be laying track all over the known universe, but by the end, the trains all converge on that Big Bend Tunnel at breakneck speed. As hard as J. has tried to loathe himself all along, you wind up pulling for him by then. In fact, John Henry Days could have given us a lot more of J. At almost 400 pages, the novel may really be too short. I felt like I wanted to read the book again to be more prepared for the ending. In fact, I’m going to make the next five people I talk to read John Henry Days so they can talk with me about that ending. Everyone should read it–Colson Whitehead’s too good to miss. EndBlock