A bandage by any other name

In this clever novel laced with word play, a nameless 'nomenclatural consultant' seeks to establish the identities of persons, places, and things

A clever writer is like a bright schoolboy. We love him in the abstract - gee, what a smart kid - but sometimes, in private, he makes us roll our eyes. All those big words, all those showoff plot devices, all those tics and tricks.

However, our fascination with these clever writers reveals something about us. We envy them, and however much we pick on their excesses, we know they're special. It's their promise that makes us carp. We're almost frightened of what they might do with all that talent and energy, if they mature.

Colson Whitehead is that kind of writer - relatively young, ridiculously talented, and already a MacCarthur "genius" prizewinner. He loves words; he loves language. His two previous novels ("The Intuitionist" and "John Henry Days") were both characterized by Joycean literary pyrotechnics. They were fun rides. Even when they were excessive, they were intelligent.

Even if we didn't love every moment of the books, we were starstuck by the author. We knew he wasn't just being hyped as a prodigy - he really was one.

Readers with foreknowledge of Colson Whitehead's work won't be surprised by the quirky twists and turns of Apex Hides the Hurt, his most disciplined novel yet.

Let's begin with that title, which is unusual indeed. "Apex hides the hurt" is the unnamed protagonist's literary masterpiece. It's an advertising slogan for a new brand of bandages called Apex.

But the protagonist isn't just an advertising executive. He's specifically "a nomenclature consultant." For unnamed, commercially insecure products, he comes up with an identity, a raison d'être, a name.

This is a comic, allegorical novel, and, given a protagonist who is obsessed with names, no wonder there's plenty of literary wordplay.

"Hope crossed Liberty, past the intersection of Salvation," the protagonist thinks, reimagining the street signs of a town he's been hired to rename, "Take Kidnap to the end, make a left on Torture, and keep on 'til you get to Lynch. Follow the lights 'til you get to Genocide and stop at the dead end."

He doesn't concur that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet; on the contrary, names are the most visible indicators of significance.

So isn't it interesting that the protagonist - the everyman character with whom we should most identify - is unnamed? He's also black (like Colson Whitehead - Whitehead's alter ego perhaps?), insecure, and has a limp.

Apex are the world's first truly "flesh colored" bandages. They come in all different shades to fit men and women of all races. Just as names can change anything, can't multicultural bandages soothe the wounds of race?

But bandages are not the only concern of the unnamed namemaker. He has recently received his most intriguing assignment yet. He has been hired to rename a sleepy Midwestern town, formerly known as Winthrop. The citizens of Winthrop - a town founded by freed slaves - are divided over the new name.

The black residents would like to return to the town's original name "Freedom." The old money elite would like the name to remain as it is. The new money proponents of urbanization and gentrification, led by the millionaire Lucky Aberdeen, already have a name picked out: "New Prospera"

They just want the expert to give their name the thumbs up. He could, depending upon his sympathies, throw all their proposals aside.

For all its postmodern panache, "Apex Hides the Hurt" tells a time-honored story. The protagonist is in a moral quagmire: Will he opt for higher principles, the status quo, or blatant careerism? Is there a creative alternative to all three?

"He imagined a town called A. Around the communal fires they're shaping arrowheads and carving tributes to the god of hunt. One day some guys with spears come over the ridge, perform all kinds of meanness, take over, and the new guys rename the town B." he begins to reason, preceding through C, D, F, G.

There's an infinity of words, he figures, and somewhere in the universe there must be a name that will both appease his clients and ease his troubled conscience.

The novel's broad characterizations are acceptable - and enjoyable - within its comic genre. What's most important about "Apex Hides the Hurt" is that, for the author, it's a confident step forward. It's Whitehead's best-plotted novel to date. Whereas his first two novels sprawled, this time around Whitehead's love of language, which was always apparent, services the story.

"Apex Hides the Hurt" has two major themes. One is language. In the past, language was a conduit of history, of memory.

But what does it say about a society when language and images together create, out of thin air, histories and identities? Is everything commodifiable, or secondary to the drive to create new commodities - even language?

The novel's other theme is home-grown. Like "Miss Lonelyhearts," or "Babbitt," this book is about America.

Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a poet and critic living in Charleston, S.C.

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