Apex Hides The Hurt, by Colson Whitehead, was the first book I read at the beginning of January to kick off my 52-Book-Year Challenge. For a book that spends a lot of time talking about the importance of names, it was clearly a deliberate choice to feature a central character who remains nameless throughout the book. The man, referred to throughout only as 'he', is a nomenclature specialist. That is, a person whose skill in the advertising and market world is the naming of product names.
Apex, an adhesive gauze in the style of Band-Aids is our anonymous heroes career-crowning glory, and the product 'hides the hurt' in more ways than one. In fact, it is so good at hiding the hurt, that he loses a toe because the product masks an injury that festers and putrefies beneath the product's secure covering (sorry, did I just give away an important plot point? Not entirely, but never mind). Luckily, this is only part of the story Whitehead carefully unravels.
The main plot centres around our anonymous main character and his contract to help the council of the small town of Winthrop resolve an internal fight to decide on a new name. The three main choices being New Prospera, favored by a local software magnate; or to keep the existing name, Winthrop, favoured by a descendant of the town’s namesake; or to revert to the original name of the town, Freedom, since the town was originally founded by free blacks.
Written into his contract before our specialist agreed to take on the contract, was a clause that stipulated the town elders must accept whatever name he decides on. By the end of the book he decides to name the town… — oh, okay then, I won’t give that away. Before making this decision our protagonist must learn the history of the town, and that of its leading citizens, while getting to know the contesting forces, and forging alliances where he can. The book is filled with wry humor, and much insight into the world of the nomenclature specialist.
I was particularly taken with this sentence referring to the Hotel Winthrop where our consultant stays while working on the problem at hand; Whitehead observes—or is it our consultant—that, "It was a good place to make a bad decision, and in particular, a bad decision that would affect a great many people."
On its release, the book garnered mixed, but generally positive reviews with the New York Times placing it among its list of the 100 Most Notable Books of the Year. The Library Journal praised the book, noting that Whitehead does Shakespeare one better by posing the question, “What's in a name, and how does our identity relate to our own sense of who we are?” The San Francisco Chronicle gave the novel a mixed review, commenting, "It's pure joy to read writing like this, but watching Whitehead sketch out a minor character's essence with one stroke, while breathtaking, makes one wish the same treatment was afforded the people who ostensibly inhabit the novel's complex ideas."
Finally, Jennifer Reese, writing for Entertainment Weekly, called the book "a blurry satire of American commercialism", adding, "it may not mark the apex of Colson Whitehead's career, but it brims with the author's spiky humor and intelligence." Ignoring the obvious pun in her comment, Jennifer was right about the book not being the high point in Whitehead’s career. That was to come ten years later when The Underground Railroad, his latest book, was published in 2016.
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Thanks to Wikipedia for providing some background information about Colson Whitehead, and for the various newspaper and magazine reviews quoted in this article.
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Readers interested in reading Apex Hides The Hurt, or The Underground Railroad may choose to do so by purchasing either the print or eBook versions via the links below. By doing so you will be supporting my blog at the same time. Thanks in anticipation.