REVIEWED BY KYLE SMITH
The author of the hugely acclaimed novels The Intuitionist and John Henry Days, Whitehead is one of today's sharpest young writers and the winner of a MacArthur "genius" Award (large check, no strings attached). His short, satiric third novel is about a corporate whiz kid—a young black man who never tells us his own name—who earns big bucks devising names for consumer products. Presto, and a modestly hip clothing chain becomes Outfit Outlet. Bam, and we have Apex, for a kind of adhesive bandage that comes in flesh tones to match any race.
The consultant's biggest client is an entire town: Today it's called Winthrop, which smacks of "three martini lunches and cholesterol." But it's considering a change to something for the BlackBerry age: New Prospera—"the lilting 'a' at the end like a rung up to affluence and wealth."
Quiet wit ("Roger Tipple did not have a weak chin so much as a very aggressive neck,") is a tool that Whitehead uses to ease our way into symbolism about racial injustice. The narrator discovers, for example, that Winthrop isn't the original name of the town: It was founded by ex-slaves who dubbed it Freedom.
The send-up of branding experts is a sly way for Whitehead to introduce the idea that words can't cover up racial hurt; names are like thin bandages over festering wounds. But if the point is well-taken it's too simple for a writer who can see through any facade. Whitehead should broaden his scope and deliver a big, Tom Wolfe-style novel about everything.