34 pages 1 hour read

Colson Whitehead

Apex Hides the Hurt

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2006

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Summary and Study Guide


Apex Hides the Hurt, a 2006 novel by American author Colson Whitehead, follows a nameless, emotionally muted nomenclature consultant, or an expert in creating brand names. The novel toggles between the protagonist’s memories of success at his company, and his current consulting assignment—renaming a town. The novel satirizes contemporary American consumer culture and features themes of race and identity. Whitehead uses humor and revelation as key narrative techniques in this story about a man who is estranged from himself and others. Readers wonder whether the novel’s events, which force the protagonist to confront uncomfortable truths, will help him open up or push him further away.

Whitehead won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2016 and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2017 and 2020. In 2002, he received a MacArthur Genius Grant. Apex Hides the Hurt was critically well-received and was included among The New York Times 100 Most Notable Books of the Year for 2006.

This guide uses the 2006 Anchor Books Kindle edition for page numbers and citations. Please note that this study guide quotes, but obscures, the author’s use of the n-word.

Plot Summary

The protagonist has recently left his company due to a “misfortune” (5) Because he was very good at his job, easily creating successful product names, his old boss reaches out to him to take a new client—the small town of Winthrop.

Winthrop city council has decided to rename the town to attract new residents and businesses; they need the protagonist to help choose one of the suggested names. Mayor Regina Goode wants to rename the town Freedom, the name that the original African American settlers—her ancestors—gave it. Software entrepreneur Lucky Aberdeen wants to name the town New Prospera as a nod to future success and innovation. Albie Winthrop, the last descendant of the family for whom the town is named, wants to retain the name Winthrop. The Winthrop family built a barbed wire factory in the town in exchange for changing the name. During the late 1800s, when farmers needed to delineate their property, barbed wire made the Winthrops a fortune. The protagonist agrees to work on the condition that they keep the name he decides on for one year.

In the past, the protagonist’s career pinnacle was rebranding Johnson & Johnson’s Band-Aids competitor. The protagonist decided on the name “Apex”—the top, the best—and hit on the idea to have the bandages come in a variety of skin tones, making their slogan “Apex Hides the Hurt” because the bandages blend in with the wearer’s skin. His rebranding campaign was a success.

In the present, a group of young families looking to settle in an affordable, up-and-coming area come to Winthrop. They view model homes and scout the town’s amenities. To the protagonist, they seem status-seeking and vapid.

After speaking with the librarian, the protagonist learns how the town was renamed from Freedom to Winthrop. The town’s original African American settlers were freed slaves who moved west in 1867 to escape persecution. The group had two leaders, Goode (Regina’s ancestor) and Field. Goode and Field were known as the Light and the Dark: Goode was an optimistic preacher-type, while Field was a realist, distrustful and cautious. Goode and Field formed a council with Winthrop, assuming they would always have a two-to-one majority over the white man. However, Field was not present at the council meeting when the town was renamed—Goode double-crossed Field, who was wary of Winthrop. Now, nothing in town bears the name Field; none of Field’s descendants live there.

The novel shifts to the past again to explain how the protagonist lost a toe. Even though his balance is not affected, he has developed a psychosomatic limp and feels phantom pain in the missing toe. At a team-building retreat on a farm the previous year, the protagonist stubbed his toe, put an Apex bandage on it, and assumed everything was fine. But afterwards, he kept stubbing the same toe. It became more injured, but the now excellent-quality Apex bandages kept the injury compressed so that the protagonist did not realize the extent of the damage. At one point during the retreat, which is, he stepped into a swamp of pig feces. His toe grew infected and later was amputated. The incident scarred him.

In the present, Lucky has organized a barbeque. At the party, the protagonist has an epiphany that he has been keeping himself isolated for no reason. He climbs on a table to announce his town name decision, but he slips, and the moment is lost. The next morning, he leaves Winthrop. An envelope addressed to the city council contains his choice of name: Struggle—the name that Field suggested.

The protagonist returns to New York, hoping that his psychosomatic pain will go away, but he soon realizes that this foot hurts even worse than before.

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