My Year in Books: Sag Harbor

by Patrick on December 18, 2009

Can a book be a coming of age novel if nobody really comes of age in it?  Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor is many things — smart, funny, weird — but I don’t really think anybody goes through a radical, life-altering experience.  This isn’t Stand By Me.  Benji Cooper is a dichotomy, a walking contraction — a black boy with a beach house.  He’s affluent and African-American, and this makes him different.  Even at his relatively young age, he’s aware that his social condition is unique.  In fact, you might say he’s acutely aware of it, and that this awareness dominates his world.  Every summer, he and his brother escape the heat and bustle of New York and decamp to their family’s beach house in Sag Harbor.  It’s there that Benji catches up on black culture, learning the new handshakes and current slang his hipper friends  bring back from the city.

These handshakes are the beating heart of Sag Harbor, at least from where I stand.  Told by the fifteen-year-old Benji, the book is suitably obsessed with pop culture and the status it can confer on those who wield it well.  Not only are there handshakes to master, but there’s the delicate question of how much “whiteness” is too much.  Can a self-respecting black kid like Bauhaus as well as Slick Rick?  There’s so much to love about this book, from retrospective reflections on the nature of “dag” (“Dag was bitter acknowledgment of the cruel machinery of the world.”) and the infamous New Coke panic of ’85 to its nuanced examination of race and class.  It’s a pop culture aficionado’s novel.  As such, it’s really no suprise that I enjoyed it.

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