Sometime in the money-grubbing '90s, the noun brand took on a trendy new usage as a verb, as in to create widespread name-recognition for your product or service (or even yourself). Purists might rail against this bastardization of another perfectly good word as one more nail in the coffin of American civilization, but for the folks in Colson Whitehead's new novel, Apex Hides the Hurt, it's just the way we live now so get used to it. Whitehead made a literary splash with his widely praised first novel, The Intuitionist, and his second, John Henry Days, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. On the strength of those books, he received a coveted genius award from the MacArthur Foundation, which praised the way his fiction blends American folklore, historical criticism, humor, and commentary on racism and other social issues. To varying degrees, these elements are on view in Apex Hides the Hurt, a breezy and biting satire about a man who names things for a living and the town that hires him to help them rename and revitalize their sleepy little burg.

Winthrop was built on the manufacture of barbed wire, but hopes to reinvent itself as a high-tech Mecca. The three-person town council is split as many ways on the issue of renaming the place. Software tycoon Lucky Aberdeen is pushing for New Prospera, while Albie Winthrop, for obvious reasons, thinks the current name is just fine. The swing vote belongs to Mayor Regina Goode, who agrees the name should be changed, but would prefer Freedom, the name originally given the town by her forebears former slaves who were its first settlers.

One of the country's top nomenclature consultants is called in to decide, and this branding wizard is the central character of the novel. With a touch of irony, Whitehead never names this professional namer, and only slowly do we learn anything about him. He is African American, a graduate of a Harvard-like university called Quincy, and his meteoric career has already reached its zenith with his inspired rebranding of a substandard line of adhesive bandages. Rechristened Apex, these bandages have ridden the crest of multiculturalism by offering boo-boo protection in a vast array of skin tones. Their advertising slogan, Apex hides the hurt, has taken on a life of its own as a popular catchphrase and punch line.

Our antihero has since resigned from his prestigious job after suffering an injury that has left him with one less toe. Before the amputation, he had futilely tried to hide the hurt with an Apex bandage, and his festering wound can be read as a metaphor for his decaying soul. In a climactic scene the best in the book he undergoes an existential breakdown in Times Square, alit in all its brand-extolling glory: [L]ooking up at the sky as if it were a vast eternal mirror, he saw all the logos and names, and saw himself as some brand of mite lost in the pages of the musty encyclopedia of the world. Galanta and Apex, Percept and Rigitol. . . . These names were the names of ancient cities where great battles had been won, where the words culture and civilization had first been formed by human mouths. But we reeled them in and kept them close to this muddy earth, and on the shelves of supermarkets they were artificial kneecap lubricants, sponges equipped with abrasive undersides, aerosol sprays that magically banished static cling. Such disreputable gods. Thanks to this epiphany, he shows up in Winthrop with an agenda. By contract, the town must abide by whatever name he chooses for one year, and his choice, one can guess, will reflect not the gentrified soullessness of the new denizens, but something that has grown out of his newfound appreciation for that quaint and obsolete notion the truth.

Though billed (branded?) as a comedy, Apex Hides the Hurt is more cynical than outright funny, and whether the fault lies in its brevity or its brisk tone, it doesn't delve too deep. But Whitehead is a sharp-witted writer, and in the last pages of the book, the scattered pieces of the story converge into a trenchant message for our age: try as they might, the image-makers haven't managed to conceal the whole truth behind slick names, slogans or marketing brands. At least not yet. Robert Weibezahl is a novelist and critic who has not yet branded himself.

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