A city that laughs down idealism while begging to be romanticized, New York has been the subject of countless writerly tributes, most of which revolve around the same well-trampled center. New arrivals espying the skyline by bus, freaks lounging in Central Park, umbrella salesmen practicing quick-dry capitalism, strangers doing weird things on the subway–all the stock characters haunt Colson Whitehead's The Colossus Of New York, but none linger long enough to weigh down a breezy prose-poem experiment that's equal parts swoon and sigh. A young writer with two vaunted novels (The Intuitionist and John Henry Days) to his credit, Whitehead sees the city like an artist armed with a sketchbook and some spare time to kill. The book's 13 parts fall under headings like "The Port Authority," "Morning," "Rain," and "Downtown," and the subtle evocations they gather are just as simple and suggestive. Sentences roll and tumble–some of them well-chiseled, others brusque or unfinished–without much mind for continuity or narrative. "You start building your private New York the first time you lay eyes on it," Whitehead writes at the start, before unrolling a schematic blueprint that touches on the city's rich private/public friction. The book's word portraits are simultaneously sharp and generic, revealing as much through what's left out as through what's left in. Among kite flyers and cute puppies in Central Park, an anonymous character gains brief notice: "He never comes here even though he only lives two blocks away and now that he has forced himself to take in the sunshine everything is still terrible." Nothing else is said, but moments like those bore into the surfeit of endless, ever-changing stories that shimmer and fade into the New York myth. Parts of Colossus read like a writer's exercise more than a fully invested work, but Whitehead patches together a mesmerizing quilt of images with word-sound riffs ("Trusted servants heave wheelchair heiresses. Rollerblading yuppies burn off brunch.") and remote observations that are alternately ecstatic and elegiac. By the end, The Colossus Of New York proves to be a sharp X-ray of a book, exposing the skeleton of a city with enough muck and muscle to carry its own weight.

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