Gerund's Reviews > Sag Harbor

Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
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May 21, 2009

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Read in May, 2009

At one point in American author Colson Whitehead's fourth novel, the 15-year-old protagonist Benji succinctly sums up the strangeness of his social circle: "According to the world, we were the definition of paradox: black boys with beach houses."

The year is 1985, more than two decades before the Obamas would step into the White House as America's First Family. Then, as now, spending summer vacations in your family's beach house on Long Island was something strongly associated with WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), a sign not just of your family's wealth but also of its sense of tradition, of being part of a community that can be counted upon, year after year, to congregate and while away the hot summer months together in affluent comfort.

Indeed, Benji and his family are the very image of upper middle class New Yorkers, except that they are black. His father is doctor, his mother is a lawyer, they live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and he and his brother Reggie wear jackets and ties to their posh private school.

Benji sarcastically notes that he and his brother are often asked by random strangers if they are sons of diplomats, or young princes from Africa: "Because -- why else would black people dress like that?"

This novel is by far the closest author Colson Whitehead has ever gotten to autobiographical fiction.The native New Yorker is beloved in its literary scene for ambitious yet quirky novels like his debut The Intuitionist (1999), as well as the book of essays The Colossus of New York (2003).

Sag Harbor is a different animal altogether. The episodic novel unfurls like a collection of closely-linked short stories, with each chapter exploring a different aspect or motif of Benji's life, the result being a somewhat meandering but compelling narrative suffused with nostalgia.

Whitehead is a drolly funny author with a knack for the charmingly mocking description. As the family takes the long drive from the city to the seaside town of Sag Harbor at the start of summer, Benji recalls listening to Karen Carpenter on the radio: "Every time Karen Carpenter moved her mouth it was like the lid of a sugar bowl tinkling open and closed to expose deep dunes of whiteness."

While their life in the city was an exercise in being the exception, at Sag Harbor they enter an enclave of similarly well-to-do blacks, a place where -- to some extent -- Benji does not have to explain why he is the way he is, as he hangs out with a group of boys who have grown up together over several summers.

But this is not a book about some summertime utopia. It is in this community that Benji learns some of life's hard lessons, in chapters with titles like If I Could Pay You Less, I Would (detailing Benji's sticky summer job at an ice-cream parlour named Jonni Waffle) and To Prevent Flare-Ups (about his unhappy family, his abusive father and browbeaten mother: "We were a Cosby family , good on paper.").

Philosophy and socio-political issues are introduced in small quotidian dramas, such as when Benji is patted on the head by their boss after doing a good job during rush hour. Was this act condescending or brotherly, fiercely debate his friends, whose opinions hinge on whether they think their racially-ambiguous boss is black or white.

But while race and racism is a major theme in the novel, Sag Harbor is at its most powerful when it addresses the larger idea of hopes and disappoinment, not just of the black community for itself but also on an individual level.

Especially depressing is Benji's recollection of an escapade with BB guns, a narrative which sees the protagonist suddenly refer to the not-so-golden present, the vantage point from which the adult Benji is viewing his youthful exploits: "I'd like to say, all these years later, now that one of us is dead and another paralyzed from the waist down from actual bullets... that the game wasn't so innocent after all."

The reader never finds out who turned out badly, who the unlucky ones are. Carried along by Benji's introspective, bittersweet memories, we get the idea that this is not a book about how everything turns out, but is about how expectations are developed, how yearnings begin.

It is like how Benji describes the effect of the generic sentimental songs that make up the playlist of the Sag Harbor radio station: "a feeling of nostalgia for something that never existed".
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