Pittsburgh, Pa.
Contact Search Subscribe Classifieds Lifestyle A & E Sports News Home
A&E Recipes  Media Kit  Personals 
Tv Listings
The Dining Guide
Fashion to go
'The Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Parts' by Colson Whitehead

Poetic prose dance to the many rhythms of the city

Sunday, December 14, 2003

By John Freeman

The field of scribes offering to be New York City's literary tour guide is vast and deep, but in his surprising third book, Colson Whitehead versifies himself to the top of this heap. His slim volume of 13 essays is the cheapest, most stylish ticket to the Big Apple between two covers.

"The Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Parts"

By Colson Whitehead

Doubleday ($19)


If Mayor Bloomberg had any sense, Holland Tunnel tollbooth attendants would hand copies to visitors as they entered the city.

After a brief prologue, the book takes off with an eight-page riff on the Port Authority, the underground bus terminal where the downtrodden most often arrive.

"They wait so long to see the famous skyline," Whitehead writes, "but wake at the arrival gate and with a final lurch are delivered into dinginess."

And so we have Whitehead's dominant themes: the anonymity of the city and the collective weight of its dreams, the way it inspires visions of a better self only to smash such fantasies to bits.

The tone throughout is cozy and colloquial, with flourishes of whisper-in-your-ear lyricism. There are clues about where to enter the Brooklyn Bridge, which pylon to stake out on subway platforms, at what hour to end your night and which awning holds the best shelter from the rain.

The New York of Whitehead's imagination is an occult world made up of tall tales and legends, of hand-to-mouth wisdom.

It's hard to call this kind of writing prose; it would be stretching to label it poetry. Composed against the city's back-beat, grooved by the melody of its voices, Whitehead's style is best described as Duke Ellington crossed with Run DMC, with the occasional sampling of Frank Sinatra. From sentence to sentence, a-ha moments are many.

It's as if Whitehead scooped his pen into the collective unconscious of everyone who's ever visited New York -- and borrowed some overheard stories, too -- and came up with a voice that's everyone and no one.

It dips and starts like a pedestrian trying to double-cross Broadway. It teeters toward dawn like the hoards of people crowding into Manhattan bars on Friday night.

Where the city makes music, Whitehead orchestrates his best lines. In "Downtown," a series of prose rhapsodies build to a description of night on the town, downtown style -- eating, drinking, talking and, eventually, dancing.

"The DJ has scrutinized evolution and knows the back door into reptilian brainstem," Whitehead writes. "The beat cries mutiny, recruits limbs and hips, strips this vessel of volition. Apparently this song is very popular. Lewd dances trigger responses. Still the wallflower after all these years. To be able to just dance up to somebody and start doing that, whatever that's called. Akimbo things banish drinks to the floor. Elbows heels hands and heads. Beware the lumbering man-child at 10 o'clock -- they tend to wave their arms when they dance. She looks down at her hips. Not half bad."

With this effort, Whitehead has become a literary version of that DJ. He has tapped into some primal part of the brain where New York lives. He will lead people out onto the city's steel and concrete dance-floor, whether they want to be there or not. Not half bad at all, indeed.

John Freeman is a freelance writer in New York.

E-mail this story E-mail this story  Print this story Printer-friendly page

Search |  Contact Us |  Site Map |  Terms of Use |  Privacy Policy |  Advertise |  About Us |  What's New |  Help |  Corrections
Copyright ©1997-2007 PG Publishing Co., Inc. All Rights Reserved.