Colson Whitehead: Surviving New York

Photos Nina Mouritzen

Though Colson Whitehead has been living in Fort Greene, on and off, since 1993, during which time he’s written five novels, the only piece of neighborhood geography to appear in his fiction is a bulletproof-glassed 24-hour deli to which a freelancer writer repairs for late-night sustenance in John Henry Days. (That deli is now the sports bar Mullane’s.) For his “autobiographical fourth novel” Sag Harbor, he produced a hand-drawn map of the town where he summered as a child (and still does, when the peripatetic writer’s life of workshops and fellowships allows it). But that book was a memory piece; as a writer, he pointed out more than once over the course of an interview conducted during a walk through Fort Greene, “I spend most of my life in my apartment.”

So while Whitehead is a lifelong New Yorker, it’s maybe more to the point to say that he’s a lifelong consumer of American popular culture. He was a critic for the Village Voice in the 1990s, using his columns to go long about music and attendant issues; he dropped a line of dialogue from Unforgiven into his first novel, The Intuitionist, and his most recent novel, Zone One, features convincing mockups of propaganda anthems rendered in contemporary Billboard chartspeak—“Stop! Can You Hear the Eagle Roar? (Theme from Reconstruction)”—and kiddie-TV characters and their tie-in merchandise: “The plastic-covered notebooks were candy-colored and palm-size, brimming with the characters and arcana of a prosperous and long-standing children’s entertainment combine. The creation myth of the product line concerned the adventures of a clever, effeminate armadillo and his cohort of resourceful desert critters.” He’s expert at showing how people are populated, and repopulated, by their culture and language. It’s partly a matter of branding, like in Apex Hides the Hurt, in which a corporate “nomenclature consultant” is called upon to rename a town, striking just the right tone about its conflicted racial history and hopes for the future; but also there in the way that Run DMC lyrics and Star Wars action figures signify the diverging paths of two teenaged brothers.

In Zone One, which is out in paperback in July, a “sweeper” called Mark Spitz and his paramilitary compatriots work their way through Manhattan south of Canal Street, flashing back to the early days of the zombie apocalypse which has left the island a new kind of contested space. (The notion of “survival in New York,” once a major psychological block for Whitehead’s commuter protagonist, becomes amusingly literal.) The book, Whitehead says, is his tribute to his own childhood frame of reference: “I was a bit of a shut-in as a kid, and my only real only access to the real world was through movies and TV and comic books, horror and sci-fi novels,” including not just George Romero but films laying a genre overlay atop New York City, like The Warriors and Escape from New York, and the similar but L.A.-set Omega Man (Whitehead exactingly qualifies a more recent, NYC-shot version of the same Richard Matheson source book as “the third adaptation of I Am Legend”).

Informed by nostalgia, Zone One is also, like Sag Harbor, “about nostalgia,” Whitehead says, and “trying to go back to your safe places,” both psychically and, in this novel at least, otherwise. As Whitehead revisits his childhood cultural familiars, block-by-block, the city’s grid also structures the book, and its main character’s head, triggering “fragments,” per Whitehead, “of his former life, places that he used to frequent, people that he used to be and what he used to love,” in the way that Whitehead, walking around the neighborhood where he’s lived for the better part of his adult life, has his “private monuments… The places where I wrote are very important, they’re beacons of hope around the city—I’ve lived in five or six different neighborhoods, five different apartments in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, and I can’t walk by them without saying, ‘Oh, that’s where I wrote half of The Intutionist, that’s where I wrote John Henry Days.’”

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