A week on US radio: stuck between stations

Fun-wise, it's been an unspectacular summer in New York

A week on US radio
Various
 
Fun-wise, it’s been an unspectacular summer in New York. “We are quietly snoring,” reports the New York Times, briefly enlivened by Beyoncé causing havoc at Coney Island by perfecting her make-up for an impromptu photo shoot on the 90-year-old Ferris wheel, and leaving a lone couple stranded for over half an hour 150 feet at the top, certain they had been forgotten for the night and forced to sit tearfully in their wind-rattled cage, gazing down on the wide and clamouring boardwalk below.
 
When immigrants approached New York by boat in the 19th century, it wasn’t the Statue of Liberty they saw first, but the one million electric lights of Coney Island – lights promising one thing: here, pleasure is a birthright. But not this summer. A numbing heatwave in June was followed by perpetual drizzle and brown-shadowed thunderstorms along the Jersey shore, knocking out power in the run-up to Labor Day.
 
“After the news, I wanna bring something up,” sighed Jim Gearhart, the veteran host of New Jersey 101.5, on yet another overcast morning. “Today’s the day that the burger flippers are supposed to go on strike. Has anybody in New Jersey heard about this?”
 
In New York, fast-food workers’ wages have increased just 25 cents in ten years to a parlous $7.25 (£4.67) an hour. The burger flippers of New Jersey – the most densely populated state in the Union, with tens of thousands working in that industry – earn marginally more, but still short of Barack Obama’s proposed $9 minimum wage. When recently McDonald’s sent out a sheet of contemptuous “suggestions” on how its workers might more sensibly live within a budget, it included an assumed “income from another job”, conceding that nobody can hope to survive by flipping cheeseburgers alone.
 
“Do you believe in the minimum wage or is it pushing even Karl Marx to the left?” muses Jim. “Let’s go to Joe in Neptune.” “Oh wow,” says a distracted Joe, forgetting what he wanted to say and hanging up. Jim sighs and leisurely goes to the ads for statins. It takes more than dead air (or even murder) to faze a New Jersey DJ.
 
Later that afternoon, on National Public Radio, it’s not Marx but Einstein up for discussion. Tom and Ray Magliozzi – brothers who nominally dole out advice about fixing cars on the station – affectionately mock a listener who has just emailed in on the subject of geniuses and called Albert Einstein “Norman”. “Hey– Norman Einstein!” shriek Tom and Ray, 76 and 64, respectively, but brimful with the dimply charm of fantastically unsnooty delinquents. “Hey, man!” they bang the table, hooting with a soul-deep satisfaction. “Ah, man . . .” It’s the most fun they’ve had since Memorial Day. “You been collaborating with Yogi Bear on this?”
A summer thunderstorm in New York. Photo: Getty

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

Getty
Show Hide image

The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage