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Colson Whitehead
Apex Hides the Hurt
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2006

Doubleday / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 0-385-50795-X
Publication Date: 03-21-2006
212 Pages; $22.95
Date Reviewed: 04-26-06

Index: General Fiction  Fantasy

Without names, without words, the world around us dissolves, coalesces into a featureless blur. Every name, every tag, every word we use battles back the blur, lays down lines of definition, of sense, of substance. Without doubt, words are our primary weapons, the implements of mass destruction and construction with which we build -- or destroy -- our world. But if words can destroy, then they can also create, and the skilled writer can play words in the same manner a skilled trumpeter can send out stacks of notes. Colson Whitehead is our current master of verbal be-bop, a player of words extraordinaire. 'Apex Hides the Hurt' is an hysterical jazz palate of jokes, a novel of names and namelessness. This is a book to read on the back porch in the warm summer sun, with a cool drink in your hand. As Whitehead's riffs run off the page and blend into your world, as his words dissolve the distances, the one thing you'll not be able to name is just how Whitehead jumbles so many ideas into such a sleek, simple-seeming story.

As 'Apex Hides the Hurt' begins, the protagonist, a nomenclature consultant, arrives in Winthrop, a sleepy burg in the midst of Middle America. He's been called here with a purpose, to decide whether Winthrop gets a new name, keeps the old one, or whether something entirely different happens. Our Hero is a crabby guy. His foot hurts enough to make him limp, or at least, enough to give him an excuse to limp. Something bad happened down there, footwards, but we're not sure what it is. The bartender at the sole hotel in Winthrop has big ol' chip on his shoulder. The mayor is a pushy but not unattractive woman and the software magnate who wants the town renamed manages to be pushier than the mayor and annoyingly chipper. The heir to the town's name is buggy, weird and rapidly running out of money after a badly executed divorce. Our hero manages to get into a war with the hotel's maid over the state of uncleanliness in his room. These are surely not the best of times, and probably a candidate for the worst of times. Clearly a decision must be made, and that involves uttering a name.

Whitehead has stripped down his prose for 'Apex Hides the Hurt', scrubbed it so clean that you can see the invisible spaces between the words, you can feel the absence as you read. There's a peculiar and airless quality here, a sort of Colgate Invisible Shield Against Truth Decay in a town where the truth is not just rotten, it's deliquesced into a puddle of putrid goo. Whitehead, via Our Hero, aims his improvisational instrument -- the oh-so-American language -- at a target and just lets it rip with the kind of skill you'd expect from a guy who got the MacArthur "genius" grant. But this is genius unleashed for the sake of snark, as well as smart. As long as we're doing definitions --and that's a key concept in this novel -- you can bet that some Wiki-Tiki-Pedia of the future will core dump this novel as a sub-definition of the word wry. If nothing else, this is the book to read before party season to get your smiling muscles in shape, because like it or not, you’re going to be grinning through most of the proceedings.

The proceedings, as it were, are no less bland than you'd expect from the anonymized mid-West. If you've got a problem with anonymity, a problem with plots that climax when a name is uttered, a problem with a world that lives in some sort of semi-transparent plastic netherworld right next to but NOT ours, then buddy, you’re in the wrong book. But if you can imagine Franz Kafka on stage with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, playing a wild saxophone solo, then you have just walked into the perfect gig.

Whitehead specializes in writing novels set in mind-flatteningly mundane settings that, by virtue of his prose style, seem surreal and fantastic. His characters, from Our Hero With His Damaged Foot to the mayor, to the wacko ex-millionaire in his crumbling, cruddy mansion, pop off the page, but also seem to be sprayed over with shiny, bright plastic, enveloped in the vacuum of their own self-absorbed personalities. And even though that should seem surreal, it manages to seem both very familiar and very funny.

Humor is the main effect that Whitehead evokes in 'Apex Hides the Hurt', but it's not the only effect. Whitehead is the kind of guy who can tell the verbal equivalent of a math joke, something that makes you laugh but also makes some equation of meaning, of language, suddenly, startlingly clear. Now. There is a district lack of car chases, violence and sex in 'Apex Hides the Hurt'. Of course, that's more true of our lives than most of us want to admit. Whitehead doesn't write about events that are, from the external point of view, what one would call "exciting". No, Whitehead's writing itself is meant to and manages to provide all the excitement you need.

'Apex Hides the Hurt' does not manage to hide the fact that Whitehead is deserving of his genius grant. In fact, words hide nothing here, and names nail nothing down. As Whitehead chips away at our reality and our consciousness with nothing but language, readers realize that there's nothing to hide and nothing to name. There is nothing -- we are nothing -- beyond our language. Beyond our words. What else could there be? Name something -- name just one thing.

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