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Entertainment Weekly

Books

There's a Colson Whitehead novel for everyone — here's your complete guide

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An Author Who Can Do It All

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead is again generating raves for his new novel, The Nickel Boys. Eager to start on his work? You've got options. Here, we break down his novels to their essentials, and the author also reflects on his experience writing (and moving on from) each book.
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The Intuitionist (1999)

The Premise: Set vaguely in the first half of the 20th century in a major metropolitan city, Whitehead's witty and surreal debut envisions a world where vertical transportation is often required in the form of elevators. When one elevator mysteriously fails, an inspector is called to solve the case.

The Appeal: Structured like a detective novel, dashed with existential humor (a trademark of the author's), and rooted in subtle, sharp social commentary.

The Hardware: Finalist for the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award

The Reflection: "With [The] Intuitionist, I was faced with this seemingly absurd plot, and I was really broke and bitter [at the time]," Whitehead tells EW. "So that was hard, to find the time and the money."

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John Henry Days (2001)

The Premise: The novel delves into the magnificent legend of the African American folk hero and "steel-driving man" John Henry, as explored by a freelance journalist tasked with covering the first annual John Henry Days festival. The Appeal: A big, winding alternate history in the vein of Gravity's Rainbow (an influence), recasting a collection of real-life figures through a decidely Whitehead-ian lens. The Hardware: Pulitzer Prize finalist; National Book Critics Circle Award finalist The Reflection: "There wasn't a ton of scholarship about John Henry, and he existed in different forms," Whitehead reveals. "There aren't a lot of books about John Henry to be compared to. I think the encyclopedic structure allows one to talk in different modes and visit different time periods and different characters, for five pages or 20 pages, then come back to the main narrative. That was really liberating."
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Apex Hides the Hurt (2006)

The Premise: A branding consultant is tasked with changing the name of Winthrop, a small fictional town, only to bump up against the ugly stains of its history. (Specifically: The town was originally named by freed slaves.)  The Appeal: Cutting satire of capitalism, and a near-absurdist foray into the darkness of American history. The Hardware: PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award The Reflection: "My daughter was born halfway through [writing] Apex. After that, I became nicer to my characters."
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Sag Harbor (2009)

The Premise: Whitehead's most autobiographical novel follows adolescent brothers Benji and Reggie over the course of a summer at the exclusive Sag Harbor, located in the Hamptons.  The Appeal: A lush, wise coming-of-age saga peppered with deeply personal details. The Hardware: PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction Finalist
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Zone One (2011)

The Premise: In this post-apocalyptic vision of New York, where a virus destroyed civilization and turned people into flesh-eating zombies, "sweeper" Mark Spitz works to clean up the city to make it inhabitable again. The Appeal: Zombie thriller! Need we say more? (If we do: Gory, funny, wild, and allegorical.)  The Hardware: But the latest example of a hard genre exercise largely ignored by awards bodies.  The Reflection: "With Zone One, I owe a debt to dystopian science-fiction from the '60s and '70s: Planet of the Apes, John Carpenter — I would like to salute them. Plus I have a zombie fixation because I saw it too early," Whitehead laughs. "For me, it's a 9/11 book. I was getting divorced. It's a life-change book. The apocalypse and the 'you' afterwards — how do you take who you were before into the new world, the post-catastrophe life? Growing up in New York and seeing the towers fall, how can I live in the city and create a new self? That's playing out in Zone One."
DOUBLEDAY

The Underground Railroad (2016)

The Premise: A literal reimagining of the Underground Railroad, with Runaway slave Cora as our guide through this world, having just committed a murder in self-defense and embarking on a bizarre, eye-opening journey. The Appeal: A definitive literary performance that comes along once a year if we're lucky.  The Hardware: Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize The Reflection: "In those early stages, Underground Railroad was a little railroad; each state is an alternate America," Whitehead tells EW. "Early on, I had the white supremacist state, the black utopian state. Every two years, for five minutes, I'd think about it. I wasn't really working on it. The main protagonist was a man running away; a man looking for a child, or a husband looking for a spouse. Then I settled on Cora and the mother-daughter dynamic. It was initially more sci-fi and science-fictiony."
Doubleday

The Nickel Boys (2019)

Want to know more about Whitehead's latest? Read our profile of the author.
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