More than any other season, summer embodies a mood, a palpable state of mind. And nowhere is that sensed more intensely than in the course of a long, lazy stretch at the beach. Even one such experience is enough to fuel a lifetime of recollection made more vivid, paradoxically, by the passage of time.
Benji Cooper, the protagonist of Colson Whitehead’s lighthearted, semi-autobiographical fourth novel, is a perceptive, appealing black teenager, 15 years old in 1985. He and his one year younger “fake twin” brother Reggie are spending the summer at their family home in Sag Harbor, adjacent to the Hamptons on the East End of Long Island. They live there, parentless save for the weekends, amidst a community of prosperous African Americans who began summering in the area in large numbers after World War II. Benji attends a Manhattan private school, wears braces, doesn’t know how to swim and finds himself stuck in the awkward interstice between childhood and adolescence: “Move. Don’t move. Act. Don’t act. The results were the same. This was my labyrinth.”
When he’s not absorbed in one of his favorite cable TV horror flicks (The Road Warrior most prominent among them) or demonstrating his mastery of the art of making waffle cones at Jonni Waffle, a popular ice cream store, he’s simply hanging out with friends like Bobby (whose $100 car with its rusting floorboards provides the only transportation alternative to walking or a bicycle), Clive, Marcus, Nick and NP (short for Nigger Please, “because no matter what came out of his mouth, that was usually the most appropriate response”). Benji is quick to perceive and acknowledge their anomalous status, “According to the world, we were the definition of paradox: black boys with beach houses.”
Benji’s mother is a corporate attorney, his father a podiatrist with a drinking problem who is most proud of his barbecuing skills (the “master griller”) and determined, cruelly so at times, to equip his sons with the toughness he thinks they’ll need to survive in the world. Except for brief and infrequent trips, Elena, Benji’s older sister, is no longer “coming out,” the term for the annual pilgrimage from city to seashore. She urges her brother to plan the same eventual escape, but the tug of a lifetime of summer memories is strong.
Whitehead clearly has elected not to tell a story filled with dramatic incident or startling plot twists. There’s the BB-gun war that ends painfully, but not disastrously, for one of the participants, some underage drinking, futile efforts to confirm rumors of a nude beach and the suspense surrounding Benji’s attempt to wangle his way into the end-of-summer concert featuring Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam and the hip-hop group U.T.F.O, among a host of equally mundane goings on. In short, not much happens to punctuate the lazy drift of days that connect the season’s bracketing holidays. Yet in Benji’s summing up of the BB-gun fiasco, there’s a clear sense something more is at stake than the idle pastimes of young boys: “As time went on, we learned to arm ourselves in different ways. Some of us with real guns, some of us with more ephemeral weapons, an idea or improbable plan or some sort of formulation about how best to move through the world.”
As short as the novel is on compelling plot, it’s long on rich, almost sensual, atmosphere. Anyone who has spent time at an East Coast resort, from Maine to the Carolinas, will be able to smell the simultaneously attractive and repellent sweetness of the ice cream shop, relive the tedium of a long summer afternoon and shiver when recalling the chill of a late August night that presages an imminent return to the burdens of real life. With not a hint of nostalgia, Whitehead masterfully summons up the cultural totems --- from the disaster of New Coke to “The Cosby Show” to the first stirrings of gangsta rap --- that serve to root the story firmly and entertainingly in its time.
What ultimately rescues SAG HARBOR from consignment to the endlessly increasing stack of coming-of-age novels is the way Whitehead captures with perfect pitch Benji’s voice, his longing both to fit in and to find his own way, as he tugs at an emerging personality like a new suit, seeing how it might clothe him when he returns to Manhattan in September. “Listening and watching,” as he describes himself, “taking notes for something that might one day be a diagram for invention, a working self with moving parts.” As it is, he’s more than intriguing enough to make spending a day or two this summer in his company a delightful prospect.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org) on January 23, 2011