Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Review: Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

Doubleday, April 2009

If I’d read Colson Whitehead’s forthcoming coming-of-age novel, Sag Harbor, when I was coming of age myself, it would have been absolutely revelatory on two counts: First, that the dozen or so upper-middle-class black kids who accounted for roughly 4% of the students in my private high school also moved in a different world, with different identities, when they were away from school and their white classmates; and second, that the vacations my classmates took to places like Hilton Head and Kiawah Island, where parents left the kids to their own unchaperoned devices for days at a time, were actually much more lame than they sounded.

But already knowing these things didn’t stop me from enjoying Sag Harbor immensely. Though this “autobiographical fourth novel” is quite different from Whitehead’s first three books—most of all, from his first novel and gothic masterpiece, the extended double-consciousness metaphor The Intuitionist—it’s still an absolute delight to read, and just as insightful about racial identity in America as his earlier books.

Whitehead’s last two novels, John Henry Days and Apex Hides the Hurt, are very funny books, both wry, angry, telling takes on racial myopia and 21st century occupational absurdity (a journalist living junket to junket, a celebrated nomenclature consultant hired to mediate the renaming of a town, respectively). But neither of those books is laugh-your-ass-off funny in the way Sag Harbor is. Sag Harbor is the story of an African-American boy named Benji who spends nine months of every year at a predominantly white prep school in Manhattan (“I was used to being the only black kid in the room”) and passes his summers in Sag Harbor, a small enclave of upper-middle class blacks in the Hamptons, the elite east end of Long Island. Sag Harbor begins in June 1985, when Benji is 15. With their sister off to college and their quarreling parents rarely driving out to join them, Benji and his brother Reggie have their family’s house almost entirely to themselves.

Though it’s perhaps a bit early to start canonizing this book, it’s not too far-fetched to say that Sag Harbor may soon take its place alongside F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Walter Mosley’s Man in My Basement in the trinity of great Hamptons novels. And Sag Harbor would unquestionably qualify as the most humorous of the three. Maybe Whitehead himself could have had a career in the naming business; one of the funniest parts of Sag Harbor comes early in the book when Benji introduces his friend NP and explains how he got his nickname:

We called him NP, for Nigger Please, because no matter what came out of his mouth, that was usually the most appropriate response. He was our best liar, a raconteur of baroque teenage shenanigans … We thought we were being smart [by abbreviating] his nickname until one day we were over at NP’s house and his mom started getting on his case for some chore or other he had neglected. He began some elaborate explanation—meteorites had squashed his bike and he couldn’t make it home—when she lost her patience and cut him off with a shrill, “Nigger, please!” Mrs. Nichols’s hand shot to her mouth, but it was too late. His nickname had approval at the highest levels. For all we knew, she’d coined it in the first place.

Let me be the first to say that the very short shortlist of indelible nicknames in American fiction—Pudd’nhead Wilson, Studs Lonigan, Scout Finch—just got one name longer.

In the droll author's note that accompanies the advance proof of this book, Whitehead talks about how he’s doing things out of traditional order, presenting his autobiographical novel as his fourth book rather than his first. You can almost feel all the places where this book might have gone awry in a less mature novelist’s hands. There are chapters that start out like essays, riffs, or comedy bits he’s been working up for years, such as "The Summer of 'Dag'" (about evanescent teen lingo) and the era-defining New Coke fiasco, a riotous set piece that you'd think would go nowhere, but ends up fitting perfectly into Benji’s fish-out-of-water prep school experience. The riff that starts off seeming the most pointless—a discourse on mid-’80s easy listening radio—turns out to reveal the lovely emotional core of the book. Likewise, there are other scenes—involving the seething, gin-guzzling, barbecuing dad who’s already taught Benji “no one can hurt you more than me”; and the “he’s not my cousin, I thought he was your cousin” ante-raising pyromaniac at the end-of-summer bonfire—you fully expect to send the book hurtling toward a cataclysmic, turning-point-of-my-life ending.

But Sag Harbor is the rare breed of autobiographical novel that avoids such pitfalls. It's a book of adolescent frustrations, missed opportunities, and false starts; big changes beginning in small ways; minor revelations writ large; major revelations only partly understood; and hilarious and resonant moments of teenage buffoonery.

One of the problems with autobiographical first novels is it’s often difficult to place them in the context of a writer’s entire career. After the veiled memoir is out of the way, it’s easy to see how a writer got from Novel B to Novel C, but the first novel often seems anomalous. There are exceptions; take Tobias Wolff, another prep school misfit, who’s essentially written a succession of memoirs covering various stages of his early life, sometimes casting them as novels, as in the case of Old School. Though This Boy’s Life is surely the best of the bunch, it’s still of a piece with the others. Looking at Southern novelist Lee Smith’s autobiographical first novel, The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed, is more puzzling. It’s a fine book, but also a very conventional coming-of-age book; it’s hard to imagine how she got from Dogbushes to Fancy Strut, which isn’t her best book, but the one in which she emerges fully formed as a novelist of unique and perceptive gifts for creating vast casts of hilarious and real characters from the inside out. Only recently did I discover that she didn’t make the leap from Dogbushes to Strut leap in a single book; in between she wrote the long-out-of-print Something In the Wind, a late-’60s novel set in a North Carolina college. It’s not a great book—in some ways it’s a step backwards from Dogbushes, which is probably why it has dropped off the map—but you can see the progression in terms of humor and empathy and insight, and see its author actually becoming Lee Smith, rather than simply going to sleep one night as a Decent First Novelist and waking up, one novel later, as an Iconic Southern Author.

The difference in Colson Whitehead’s case is that he shot out of the gate with The Intuitionist, a book that makes you go Dag! in every way a great novel should. Three books later, as his writing takes an autobiographical turn, the good news is that he’s already Colson Whitehead, Literary Badass, and at no time in his trip down memory lane does he forget it. This bit of fictional autobiography may come at a perfect time in Whitehead’s career: not at the beginning, where the story would be left in the shaky hands of a first-time novelist telling the only story he thinks he really knows; or at the end, told by an old man gone weepy with nostalgia and asking us to indulge his book-length footnote to a career on the wane.

There’s nostalgia in Sag Harbor, but it’s 15-year-old Benji pining (quite movingly) for his early childhood rather than Whitehead getting misty-eyed over the teenage geek he once was. Instead of wallowing or reveling in the past—or ruing his own adolescent failures—Whitehead mines the rich material of a modestly misspent youth, and plays it to perfect and beguiling effect.

Click here to order Sag Harbor from Amazon.com.

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