Apex Hides the Hurt
By Colson Whitehead
March 2006, 208 pp., $22.95
Shane never had to fill out expense reports. Short of that, you'll recognize the redemption-seeking stranger who rides into town at the start of Colson Whitehead's new novel, Apex Hides the Hurt. Our nameless hero is a natural at what he does—and what he does is coin names. A nomenclature consultant, he conjures up winning brand names such as Apex, the popular bandage that "hides the hurt." The top man at his Manhattan firm, he is legendary for his skills.
But his skills are also part of the problem. He's so good that he has never been challenged. (At times, he'll even sit on a finished project for a couple of days, lest his clients and coworkers discover how easily the answers come to him.) With no struggle, he leads a listless life. His women, his clients, his values—all come and go unexamined. Naturally, this catches up with him—"What he had given to all those things had been the right name, but never the true name"—which is more or less the existential roadblock where the story begins.
Weary and plagued by a mysterious limp, our hero is sent to settle a naming dispute in the tiny hamlet of Winthrop (state undisclosed). The town council is deadlocked on a name change—each of its three members champions a different one. The hero's task: Assess the arguments, pick a name, and get the hell out of Dodge (or whatever he christens the place).
If you've read either of Whitehead's earlier books, John Henry Days or The Intuitionist, you know that his wordplay alone is worth the read. Fast, sharp, and occasionally brilliant, Whitehead has a unique voice, simultaneously capable of intimate humor and damning critique. Says his protagonist after several frustrating, fruitless days in Winthrop: "He liked his epiphanies American: brief and illusory."
In addition to exploring the crisis of identity, Whitehead tackles broader business concerns such as branding and corporate power. There are a few loose threads here, including a straw man (a cleaning lady, actually) who is never really developed, and a race-related theme that yearns for more space. Neither gap is enough to derail the narrative, though. Apex races along smoothly on deadpan irony, with a rewarding subtext of symbolism. And while redemption comes in the full-circle style that'll get Hollywood salivating for a script, it's a powerful revelation, potentially transferable to anyone facing career doldrums. When the sun sets and the hero rides out of town, the only nagging questions are those Whitehead meant for you to ponder.
The literary building blocks of Apex Hides the Hurt, including its logical successor.
Shane >> Invisible Man >> Wordcraft >> Apex Hides the Hurt >> Brand Rejuvenation
A version of this article appeared in the April 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.