by Colson Whitehead
Alma Books ₤9.99, 212 pages

True story: in 1986, the town of Hamilton, Ohio, approved a PR makeover for itself. Nothing radical, just a touch-up to help distinguish itself from tens of thousands of other small US cities, and to bring in businesses and families. So, with a bold but incredibly silly flourish, the city council re-christened Hamilton as Hamilton!.

The city was indeed reinvented - as a laughing stock. The government refused to acknowledge Hamilton!, as did the mapmakers at Rand McNally. In 1991, Hamilton! quietly dropped its exclamation and became ordinary again.

All of which makes Apex Hides the Hurt, the charming third novel from Brooklyn-based author Colson Whitehead, completely plausible. Like Hamilton!, Winthrop is a small, mid-western US city suffering an identity crisis. But the debate over the city’s name is badly factionalised. Albie Winthrop - a friendly blue-blood with a decaying ancestral fortune - wants Winthrop to stay Winthrop, understandably. Mayor Regina Goode, descendant of a former slave who co-founded the town, demands a return to Freedom, Winthrop’s original name. And Lucky Aberdeen, the founding tycoon of Aberdeen Software, longs to rebrand his hometown as New Prospera, a new technology and business magnet.

Enter the “nomenclature consultant”, Whitehead’s unnamed protagonist, flown in from a big city to study and settle the dispute - with the stipulation that Winthrop accept his choice for a year, like it or not.

As with Cayce Pollard, the marketing guru of William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, the Apex consultant’s merest mumblings are taken as gospel. As a fast-rising marketing star, he had made it big by bestowing the name “Apex” on a lowly bandage that subsequently developed enough market share to rival mighty Band-Aid.

Now his names are worth a fortune, and all of Winthrop breathlessly awaits his verdict while he studies historic documents in the Hotel Winthrop’s shabby Winthrop Suite. “The man at the registration had told him that President So-and-so had slept there, one of those presidents that nobody has ever heard of…As he looked around the room, he had to admit that it was quite possible that one of those so-and-so presidents had stayed there, after a listless stump speech. It was a good place to make a bad decision, and in particular, a bad decision that would affect a great many people.”

But unlike Gibson’s self-possessed Cayce, Whitehead’s character broods endlessly over the existential crisis of his own dubious career - the same obsession that tortures J. Sutter, the lazy journalist at the centre of Whitehead’s astonishing novel John Henry Days.

The consultant stews in a reclusive sulk aggravated by an unlikely injury: a toe has been amputated after repeated stubbings. (Apex bandages are sold in a multitude of skin colours; the consultant’s own brown bandage “hides the hurt” so well that he fails to notice his toe’s gradual deterioration.)

It’s one of Apex’s central jokes that the consultant is utterly ill-suited to his career, and lacks the human contact that would help intuit what the public wants to buy.

The Winthrop problem takes second place to his own self-absorbed gloom. Two potential love affairs crop up during his short stay in Winthrop; he ignores both. (In fact, only two Winthropites manage to get under his skin: the hotel’s maid, who can’t accept that he doesn’t want his musty suite cleaned, and its bartender, who simply dislikes him from their first encounter.)

It’s fair to say that both John Henry Days and The Intuitionist, Whitehead’s first novel, were far more ambitious. John Henry Days in particular spins a kaleidoscopic meditation on race, the media, US history and laziness. Race in Apex is a more oblique theme, and not necessarily the best prism through which to view the entire story.

Yet even if Whitehead is going for lower-hanging fruit here, Apex is highly imaginative and comic. It’s also by far his tightest novel, its pace and language both breezy and exacting, with sharp insights sneaking up throughout the story. “Freedom. He whistled. If he’d offered up Freedom in a meeting, he’d have been run out of town, his colleagues in full jibber behind him, waving torches…Freedom was so defiantly unimaginative as to approach a kind of moral weakness.” (George W. Bush, take note.)

Admirers of John Henry Days will be relieved that Apex Hides the Hurt has a far less abrupt conclusion, ending with a succession of punchlines. Better still, it’s hard not to sense that the conflicted town of Winthrop, like Hamilton! before it, gets exactly what it deserves.

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