A Quick Recommendation: Sag Harbor

by Patrick on May 26, 2009

For a long time, I favored first novels.  Something about those wobbly steps into the public sphere — the author finding her voice, trying things — thrilled me.  A high-wire act, a gawky kid playing a solo.  Sure, eventually I found the author’s “better” books — The Information, rather than The Rachel Papers, say– but a part of me always loved those first books.

I mention this here because in some strange way, Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, his fourth, feels like a first novel.  I don’t mean to say that it’s fumbling (not in the least), but rather that the exposed nerve that so often defines first novels is there in his latest, Sag Harbor.  I suppose this stems from the fact that this is, according to Whitehead, his most autobiographical novel to date.  Most people draw from their lives for novel #1, he’s waited until novel #4.  Sag Harbor is the story of 15-year-old Ben (nee Benji) Cooper and his group of friends, and a summer they spend at their beach houses in Sag Harbor, on Long Island.  I say “a summer” because these kids do this every summer.  The ritual of waking up at dawn to beat traffic on the LIE, scoping out the town to see who else is “out,” getting reacquainted with the friends they never see during the other nine months of the year, when they live their regular lives in New York.

It’s worth noting here that Benji and his friends are all black.  They are, at least according to the outside world, “the definition of a paradox:  black boys with beach houses.”  As Benji goes on to explain, this isn’t such a big deal for him and his buddies, just who they are.  This is true for the book as well.  At times, Benji addresses race head on, such as when his father disciplined him for not standing up to schoolyard bigots, but more often, Benji’s concerns are those of any teenager, namely, how to fit in, how to be cool, how to attract girls, and how to deal with adults.

Sag Harbor seems to me to be all about duality.  The summer of 1985 in which the book takes place is the summer that Benji stopped being a part of a perpetual twosome with his brother Reggie.  “We had recently ceased to be twins.”  No more “Benji ‘n’ Reggie, Benji ‘n’ Reggie,” as it were.  But this isn’t the only way Benji’s identity splits in two.  A quote from W.E.B. Du Bois looms early in the book:  “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”  Du Bois, of course, was writing about the African-American experience, but taken in the context of this book, he might as well have been writing about being a teenager, as well.  Benji lives every public moment with a special double-consciousness, aware not only of how he looks and acts, but in how his peers, his family and the other adults are viewing him, conscious of every slight, every gesture, every change in the atmosphere.  Even as he struggles to hone and refine his identity (“It came to me in a flash:  combat boots.  Why couldn’t I wear combat boots?”), we see the ways in which his identity fractures and reflects back on itself.

Whitehead does a masterful job of telling a fairly conventional story but keeping it consistently fresh and entertaining.  Much of the credit for this goes to the unique voice of the narrator.  Benji is a keen observer of everyday life, rendering, in minutiae: his father’s technique for barbecuing or pouring a drink, the grammatical structure of the average insult, a debate about pop music, the procedure for making a perfect waffle cone.  Whitehead’s skill is such that he can describe a barbecue and make it seem like a completely new experience.  Oh, so that’s what a barbecue is like.

Sag Harbor revels in the past without succumbing to full-blown nostalgia.  The usual adjectives could be applied:  poignant, bittersweet, funny and endearing.  It’s a great book for anyone who loved David Mitchel’s Black Swan Green or anybody who’s ever scooped ice cream for a living or argued about the etymology of a particular piece of slang or anybody who, like me, has a penchant for those honest, daring first…er, fourth novels.  Buy it here and read it this summer.  You won’t be disappointed.

Click here to read the interesting review by Toure in the NY Times Book Review.