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Sag Harbor

Review

Sag Harbor

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 (mwn52@aol.com) on January 23, 2011

Sag Harbor
by Colson Whitehead

  • Publication Date: April 28, 2009
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • ISBN-10: 0385527659
  • ISBN-13: 9780385527651