Through Stephen King’s epic Dark Tower cycle is threaded a picaresque tale that begins when Father Callahan, failed priest and alcoholic, gets on a Greyhound coach leaving a doomed Maine town called Jerusalem’s Lot. Running from vampires, and also from his own failure, he crosses ‘a great, possibly endless, confluence of worlds. They are all America, but they are all different.’ The variants of America are small – there are different faces on the banknotes, different letterheads on the newspaper, and ‘maybe there’s another version of New Jersey where the town on the other side of the Hudson is Leeman or Leighman or Lee Bluffs or Lee Palisades or Leghorn village.’ And yet the thrill’s in the wandering: ‘There are highways which lead through all of them, and he can see them.’
It seems frivolous to compare Colson Whitehead‘s Underground Railroad with any supernatural novel. But despite the grim intro to his America, the plantation Georgia from the slave’s perspective, reeking with heat, sweat, whippings, rapes and executions, there is a similar sense of adventure, of possibilities and the luminous. Runaway slave Cora escapes from the vicious Randall homestead through what turns out to be a literal underground railroad: steam trains, running through a network of subterranean tunnels from one state to another. This surreal development in no way jars the reader following Whitehead’s terse narrative of indentured horrors: you just don’t see the join. As Alex Preston wrote: ‘And here is the spark that ignites the novel. For Whitehead has taken that historical metaphor – the network of abolitionists who helped ferry slaves out of the south – and made it into a glistening, steampunk reality.’ Whenever Cora asks who built the railroad, a laconic engineer replies: who builds everything in this country?
‘If you want to see what this nation is all about,’ rail agent Lumbly explains, ‘you have to ride the rails.’ Cora rides the rails all over the US, and finds in every state she visits, a new America, differing in gradations. South Carolina’s benign and orderly world, nominally liberal, conceals a frightening Edwardian eugenicism. Tennessee appears to be engulfed in yellow fever and a rampaging forest fire – caused, apparently, by a household spark, some casual carelessness decimating city-sized acreage. In the Indiana free zone, successful escapees debate the future of the race: Booker T Washington’s conservative incrementalism fights the revolutionary fire of du Bois. North Carolina has solved the ‘race problem’ by simply banning all persons of colour from its state, importing European migrants to do the gruntwork. Yet the North Carolinans are still morbidly afraid of black people, staging gallows and passion-plays in acts of propitiation to keep ‘the other’ away. As Lumbly also says, every state is different – but everywhere Cora visits is either a slave state, or vulnerable to slave-catchers and local racists. The contradiction in the founder myth – freedom, but not for you – is inescapable, the warp in the heart of the American dream.
Hot on Cora’s trail is the road agent Ridgeway, a swaggering Simon Legree of a slave-chaser, and perhaps the O’Brien of the antebellum South. He thinks himself a philosopher-king of predators, even employing a secretary (a man of colour) to notarise his thoughts. ‘Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavour – if you can keep it, it is yours,’ Ridgeway believes. ‘Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative.’ The story doesn’t let you go for a moment, and you are sorry when the book comes to an end.
One thing we learned this year is that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are fragile things. Underground Railroad has the feel of a nineteenth-century novel, but perhaps that’s not what Whitehead is getting at. Perhaps he is trying to give us a vision of our future.