Social and financial forces silently war in the American heartland in Colson Whitehead’s novel ’Apex Hides the Hurt’

October 14, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 14, 2017

Like many places, the Midwestern town at the center of Colson Whitehead’s 2006 novel Apex Hides the Hurt is torn by battling crosscurrents. In Winthrop, one especially acute conflict pits a nostalgic longing for the past against an eagerness to embrace change — the kind of conflict, one outsider will discover, that’s hard to settle in a town still rent by deep, unspoken feelings about race, history and money.

The seemingly placid town of Winthrop is ruled by a congenial three-person council that’s normally very good at finding consensus. The group consists of Albie Winthrop, a batty divorce whose forefather manufactured and sold barbed wire to customers far and wide; Regina Goode, a grounded divorcee of decidedly more modest means, but whose roots run at least as deep as Winthrop’s; and Lucky Aberdeen, a wildly successful local software entrepreneur whose vision for the future of the town will bring as much change as that of Albie’s forefather did back in the late 1800s.

The specific issue that summons the New Yorker who is the focus of Whitehead’s novel is nomenclature. Aberdeen wants to change the town’s name to New Prospera. Goode wants to change it back to Freedom, which is what the place was originally called by her ancestors, former slaves fleeing the ashes of the Confederacy. Winthrop, of course, is perfectly content with the name that the town has had ever since it was officially incorporated by an alliance among his and Goode’s progenitors.

Like Whitehead’s 2011 zombie novel, Zone OneApex Hides the Hurt features dual narratives. Tales of the (ironically nameless) man’s career as a nomenclature consultant are interspersed with the events of the protagonist’s visit to Winthrop to mediate the dispute. This early passage exemplifies the book’s professional aspect:

A rose by any other name would wilt fast, smell like bitter almonds, God help you if the thorns broke the skin. He gave them the names and he saw the packages flying over the prescription counter, he saw the greedy hands grab them from the candy rack. He saw the names on the packaging printed over and over. Even when the gum wrappers were bunched up into little beetles of foil and skittered in the gutters, he saw the name printed on it and knew it was his. When they were haunted off to the garbage dump, the names blanched in the sun on the top of the heap and remained, even though what they named had been consumed. To have a name imprinted along the bottom of a Styrofoam container: this was immortality. He could see the seagulls swooping around in depressed circles. They could not eat it at all.

Later, touring the town, the protagonist contemplates the street names that adorn its different communities:

Winthrop’s Virginias and Oaks were well within character for someone hungering after the connotations of the eastern establishment, he decided. Want to import the coast to the prairie? You have to learn how to be just as dull, name by name. Whereas the black settlers had different marketing priorities. Hope crossed Liberty, past the intersection of Salvation. Better than naming the streets after what they knew before they came here. 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. Not exactly the kind of stuff that inspired positive word of mouth among prospective neighbors, unless he was so out of the loop that the phrase “We saw the prettiest little bungalow on Rape Street” was now much more upbeat than it used to be.

What would Lucky’s map look like? Take Innovation all the way to Synergy, then hang a looey on Scalability all the way to Cross-Platform. They were almost at the town square, he could feel it. He shook his head: going native. Did it matter in the end what names they gave their roads? There were secret street names, the ones we were unaware of. The ones that only the streets themselves knew. Welcome to Freedom. Welcome to Winthrop. Welcome to New Prospera. Tear the old signs down, put up new ones in their place — it didn’t change the character of the place, did it? It didn’t cover up history. Not for the last time, he wondered what his clients believed they could achieve. And what exactly he was doing here.

Apex Hides the Hurt is an interesting portrait of a black man who has repressed his own feelings so thoroughly that he doesn’t even realize when his body is literally falling apart. By extension, the character’s dilemma represents that of our country, a nation that has repressed and denied its divisions so completely that some people can’t openly acknowledge the very obvious problems staring them in the face.

Unfortunately, Whitehead’s success in crafting this character is pyrrhic. The consultant is so disengaged from the world around him that it’s hard to care what happens to him or to anyone else in the book. The novel is also frustrating because the central question — what name will the character recommend be applied to the town? — is left unresolved. Yes, this too is also emblematic of the state of America, but the ambiguity remains unsatisfying.

I took pleasure in the craftsmanship on display in Apex Hides the Hurt; Whitehead is a talented writer whose latest novel, The Underground Railroad, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. But the casual reader may be more apt to find this 2006 book disturbing than either enlightening or entertaining.


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