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Identity crisis

An anonymous consultant comes to the aid of a town hotly debating the merits of its own name

Apex Hides the Hurt
By Colson Whitehead
Doubleday, 212 pp., $22.95

What's in a name? For the protagonist of Colson Whitehead's wickedly funny new novel, ''Apex Hides the Hurt," everything. A nomenclature consultant, the latest in the line of Whitehead's quasi-mystical savants of corporate America, he makes his living finding just the right name -- inoffensive, mellifluous, aspirational -- for everything from children's toys to pharmaceutical products to adhesive bandages. Having suffered a mysterious setback in his heretofore meteoric career, he is summoned to take on a new, particularly thorny client: a town.

The town of Winthrop, named for the captain of industry who once provided so many of its inhabitants with their jobs, is engaged in a naming dispute. Should it keep its old, historically apropos name, or should it heed the advice of its Internet mogul bankroller and rebrand itself for the expected influx of white-collar knowledge workers as New Prospera? It is this rather absurd premise that ''Apex Hides the Hurt" offers for our perusal, and delectation; and through it Whitehead is making a strong case for a new name of his own: that of the best of the new generation of American novelists.

For a novel obsessed with the names of things, there appears to be a rather curious one missing: that of its protagonist. Yet, as ''Apex Hides the Hurt" progresses, the choice increasingly comes to make sense. Names are a tethering force, connecting people, places, and objects to a shared history, a collective order, and our protagonist floats aimlessly in the present, nameless and without identity. Seeking to help the people of Winthrop determine their truest identity, he is at a loss as to his own, lacking even the tools to imagine a life other than the meaning-poor one in which he is adrift.

Whitehead is far too clever, too assured a writer to bog his book down with such heavy lifting at the outset. The central plot line is reminiscent of William Gaddis's epic-length parodies of modern America's absurdities, but Whitehead prefers a leaner, meaner brand of prose. He may be taking the air out of corporate America's pomposity, but he feels no need to imitate its tendencies to long-windedness. Instead, Whitehead is like the stand-up comic of highbrow American novelists. You can almost hear him trying out some of his riffs on a comedy club audience, or possibly just for the paying customers in his skull. Whitehead specializes in the off-kilter image, the unusual analogy, providing a new line of sight into familiar places and things. Recalling the office where he once worked, the protagonist informs us that ''it was one of those buildings where there was one bank of elevators for one half of the building and another set of elevators for the other half. It was hard to escape the idea that the world of the elevators not taken was better, more glamorous, with butlers and canapés and such." Spare with language, as if he too, like his protagonist, has spent sleepless nights pondering the fate of the stray phoneme, Whitehead has a comic gift that stems in large part from his reluctance to use 20 words where two will serve him just as well.

Like Whitehead's earlier novels, ''The Intuitionist" and ''John Henry Days," ''Apex Hides the Hurt" is fascinated with, and amused by, the business of business. Whitehead is a wicked parodist of the mores of corporate America. He is also, with decidedly less hoopla, a chronicler of the contemporary African-American experience, with work life as a fulcrum around which the lives of Lila Mae in ''The Intuitionist," J. Sutter in ''John Henry Days," and this novel's protagonist revolve. It speaks to Whitehead's fundamentally pessimistic (albeit comic) outlook that each of his books' main characters are African-Americans almost destroyed by an overwhelmingly white world that includes them, but never understands their history, or their pain.

Having set the audience to helpless laughter with his ''recruits fresh from the airport, dressed in the uniform of their kind, primary-color polo shirts and khakis," having continually hit the ball with enough English to keep the reader constantly off-balance, surprised by his volley of aces, Whitehead suddenly and stealthily removes the floor, turning his slapstick comedy into a tragic ode to America's lost past. Digging into the town's history, a pre-Winthrop name is discovered, along with a century-old debate between its two original founders. As it turns out, the town had been founded by freed slaves after the Civil War; and before it had been called Winthrop, it had been known as Freedom. To the consultant, Freedom is a mere cop-out of a name, ''so defiantly unimaginative as to approach a kind of moral weakness." Freedom is no longer a marketable brand.

During his tenure with the firm, it had been the nomenclature consultant's proudest achievement to rebrand an underperforming adhesive-bandage brand as Apex. ''Apex Hides the Hurt," the slogan went, its promise of earthly perfection in something so humble as a Band-Aid speaking volumes about brand-name hyperbole. Having studied the prehistory of Winthrop (the history of Freedom, if you will), the nameless consultant comes to realize that more than an apex, he is in search of ''a name that got to the heart of the thing. . . . What do you call that which escapes?" The thing that is constantly escaping here is history in general, and African-American history in particular. Apex hides both his hurts, literal and metaphorical, and the wounds of a society intent on papering over its past with a layer of perfectly lovely, perfectly meaningless names. Whitehead's protagonist comes to side with the losers in history's marketing battle, the ones with the honesty to call things by their true names. Whitehead pulls up the paving stones of American history, to uncover not the beach, but the past, in all its unwhitewashed beauty and fierceness. The past -- stark, brutal, and inescapably tragic -- confronts the present, its spectral presence a memento mori for the seemingly indestructible corporate-consumerist world we all live in.

Saul Austerlitz is a writer in New York City. He is at work on his first book, a history of the music video.

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