The first thing to say about Colson Whitehead's new novel, "The Underground Railroad,'' is that it's really good — good, in fact, in just about every way a novel can be good. Its story — Cora, an enslaved woman, escapes from a Georgia plantation and journeys toward freedom — moves with speed and propulsion. Its prose is stronger, more pared down and poetic, than anything Whitehead has written before, capable of succinctly evoking the everyday terrors of slavery: "the travesties so routine and familiar that they were a kind of weather, and the ones so imaginative in their monstrousness that the mind refused to accommodate them." Its structure, which weds the wandering of the picaresque to the unbearable tautness of the 19th-century slave narrative, reveals an artist in full command of his medium.
The second thing to say about "The Underground Railroad'' is that it's much stranger than it might first appear. In his previous work, especially "Zone One'' (2011), Whitehead displayed an occasional tendency toward easy irony and abstraction. Both are gone here. In their stead, Whitehead gives us a grave and fully realized masterpiece, a weird blend of history and fantasy that will have critics rightfully making comparisons to Toni Morrison and Gabriel García-Márquez.
Whitehead represents Cora's life in Georgia with a grim realism. Mabel, Cora's mother, ran away from the plantation when her daughter was still young. Alone and wary, Cora fiercely protects a tiny plot where she grows yams and jealously guards the Sunday afternoons when she "owned herself for a few hours."
Such acts, however, are fragile protection against slavery's many cruelties. Whitehead doesn't force us to dwell within moments of extreme violence, as Morrison did in "Beloved.'' Rather, the brutality — the beatings, the sexual violence (Cora is gang raped by a group of slaves) — is described bluntly but quickly. We learn, for instance, that a slave named Big Anthony tried to escape from the plantation. After he was caught, he "was doused with oil and roasted. The witnesses were spared his screams, as his manhood had been cut off on the first day, stuffed in his mouth, and sewn in." That's it; Big Anthony isn't mentioned again. Such is the background noise of plantation life.
When Cora flees, along with a literate slave named Caesar, Whitehead leaves realism behind. The underground railroad of the novel's title? In Whitehead's retelling, it isn't just a network of abolitionists aiding slaves in their journey north. Rather, it's a real, physical railroad — tunnels and tracks and cars running under the earth, "springing from some inconceivable source and shooting toward a miraculous terminus." Like a poet, like a dreamer, Whitehead makes the figurative concrete, breathing life into history.
And what of the stops on the route — North Carolina, South Carolina, Indiana — where Cora gets off and lives temporarily, blending in before setting off on the next train? As with the plantation, these places are all convincingly imagined, with Whitehead paying particular attention to Cora's experience of fear. (Ridgeway, an obsessed slave catcher, dogs her steps throughout.) But Whitehead also shows us Cora's wonder at the precious joys of freedom. No longer picking and hating cotton, Cora in these brief interludes wears and loves it: "The new clothes were not stiff negro cloth but a cotton so supple it made her body feel clean."
Yet each stop is just off from our own world. In South Carolina, Cora works at the Museum of Natural Wonders. Each day, she takes her position behind a glass window, reenacting for the white visitors a bowdlerized version of American history: In one room, "Scenes From Darkest Africa," she dresses up as a native and tends to "a cooking fire, the flames represented by shards of red glass"; in another, "Typical Day on the Plantation," she sits contentedly at a spinning wheel and feeds fake chickens. Again, Whitehead takes something abstract (our tendency to whitewash history) and gives it physical life.
When she gets to North Carolina, a local white family hides Cora in their attic. From there, she witnesses the weekly Friday Festival: an evening of speechmaking, theatrics (in one play, a slave escapes to the North only to realize "the false promises of the Free States"), and a public lynching, one per week, of an escaped slave. This all reads like ritualized sacrifice: The white community comes together, is constituted by, its participation in violence against black bodies. In all of this, there is about nine parts realism to one part surrealism. In Whitehead's hands, the nightmarish imaginings don't distract from the novel's historical solidity. Rather, they show how nightmarish and surreal the experience of slavery was.
The past few years have reminded us, if we needed reminding, of slavery's terrible legacy, and "The Underground Railroad'' is filled with claims that ring true in our summer of racial discontent: "In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man's equal" ; "America was a ghost in the darkness."
Yet Whitehead ends his novel with a note of guarded hope. In the final pages, Cora finds happiness in a community of free black folk living and working together in rural Indiana. Tragically, the happiness and the community are both temporary; a society built upon white supremacy can't abide black fellowship for long.
But community — the fellow-feeling of Cora and Caesar; the joint construction of a subterranean route to freedom — is exactly where Whitehead finds whatever hope there is in the American experiment. As he writes, "Freedom was community laboring for something lovely and rare." Lovely and rare, dark and imaginative, "The Underground Railroad'' is Whitehead's best work and an important American novel.
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
By Colson Whitehead
Doubleday, 306 pp., $26.95
Anthony Domestico, an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, has a book on poetry and theology forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press.