Nothing much happens in Colson Whitehead’s semi-autobiographical fourth novel, Sag Harbor, a valedictory ode to a 15-year-old black kid named Benji with braces and buddies and a job at an ice cream shop. The book starts out in June 1985 on the east end of Long Island, in the African-American summer enclave of the book’s title, and ends on Labor Day, with Benji fantasizing about the shows he’ll see at CBGB once he finally turns 16. In between will come disquisitions on ’80s teenage slang, Lisa Lisa, “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” psychic geography, W.E.B. DuBois, and the archetypal sight and sound of “the thunderous hammer of the waves before you got over the dune and saw the mist of smashed-down water floating above the battered shore.” In this book, as in summer itself, daydreaming is pretty much everyone’s primary activity.
All of Whitehead’s previous books were various degrees of funny, and Sag Harbor is funnier than all three combined. At the Truffaut-loving, Nixon-hating Manhattan private school where Benji spends the school year, he’s introduced to “the hacky sack, which was a sort of miniature leather beanbag that compelled white kids to juggle with their feet.” And more baffling: “A kind of magical rod called a lacrosse stick.” During bar mitzvah season, self-satisfied parents of paler schoolmates whisper ridiculous endearments just out of earshot: “So regal and composed—he looks like a young Sidney Poitier.” Dungeons & Dragons passes the time—”Those days we expressed aggression by siccing orcs, gryphons, and homunculi on each other”—and, make no mistake, Benji’s a nerd: “Let’s just put it out there: I liked the Smiths.”
Sag Harbor marks an overdue moment for Whitehead. In the book, the author finally fully engages pop culture, a surprisingly belated move for a writer so virtuosic at the ins and outs of popular media that for three novels he basically created whole universes of the stuff himself. In his debut, The Intuitionist (1999), Whitehead paired James Ellroy and Elmore Leonard with Ralph Ellison and Thomas Pynchon, creating an alternate universe in which rival sects of celebrity elevator inspectors sabotaged one another for supremacy. In John Henry Days (2001), Whitehead analogized the vapid struggles of $2-a-word feature writers to the travails of John Henry, the steel-driving, possibly apocryphal patron saint of lost causes and chintzy, useless souvenirs. Apex Hides the Hurt (2006) was about the names of products—Whitehead invented whole shelves of them—and the bruises those names assuage and conceal. All three books took place in somewhere not quite of this world—in John Henry Days, this paper makes an appearance as The Downtown News—contexts we could easily recognize, but never quite locate. In contrast, Sag Harbor‘s milieu will be recognizable to anyone who was half-sentient during Reagan’s two endless terms.
Out on the island, Benji, his brother, Reggie, and their clique live through the “heyday of fag” (“Get a bunch of teenage virgins and future premature ejaculators together, and you were going to hear fag a lot”), and work up baroque insults to which they append “with your monkey ass” as “a kicker, to convey sincerity and depth of feeling.” Benji rigorously patrols Sag Harbor’s borders, and imagines in great detail what lies beyond, in East Hampton: “Pterodactyls wearing ascots and sipping gin and tonics, trust-fund duck-billed platypuses complaining about ‘the help.’ ” At particularly slow moments, Benji et al. debate whether or not Afrika Bambaataa ripped off Kraftwerk. (He did.)
All this to say nothing of Whitehead’s heartfelt odes to Stouffer’s frozen food, rhapsodic descriptions of the toppings at the Jonni Waffle candy bar, exegeses on old Coke versus New Coke, and dense, filigreed forays into the sociology of the ice cream store patron: “Au pairs stumbling in high heels on their night off and wearing too much makeup and helplessness on their faces. Two scoops, please.” Sag Harbor serves up whole sundaes worth of riffs on the quotidian, all hung on the skinny frame of a 15-year-old everyman virgin and his marginally less distinct friends, give or take a repressive father and a particularly evocative shoreline landscape.
Even the most generous reader can get fed up with Whitehead’s affection for digression, though, the vast space afforded in his books to elements other than character. In Sag Harbor, Benji is more concrete a person than the unnamed protagonist of Apex or J. Sutter, the merely-first-initialed antihero of John Henry Days, and about on par with the cipher-like Lila Mae Watson of The Intuitionist, with whom he shares a certain shyness. But this strategy is clearly a matter of emphasis rather than one of ability. Whitehead’s characteristic skepticism of the supposed marvels of American individualism closely mirrors that of Apex‘s nomenclature consultant, who “liked his epiphanies American: brief and illusory.”
“It cannot be said that Whitehead’s characters have much depth of life,” wrote James Wood in his now infamous takedown of John Henry Days, complaining about the “coarse unreality” of Whitehead’s imagination and his preoccupation with “irrelevant intensity”—meaning, I think, that he got worked up about the damnedest things, like frozen pizza. (“The writer of fiction must embrace a moral vision, or else he is little more than a cheap Fleet Street haberdasher,” as Whitehead satirized this view in a contra-Wood casual for Harper’s, titled “Wow, Fiction Works!”) As far as it goes, Wood is right: Whitehead is not particularly sentimental about what Wood calls the “free life” of his characters. One of the more eerie things about The Colossus of New York (2003), Whitehead’s clinically observed book of essays about New York, was how convincingly he maintained that—in all kinds of particulars—one human crouching under an umbrella is not so different from the next.
Benji, like a lot of adolescents, has a whole mob of other people inside of him. He curses WLNG, the Lite FM radio station he can’t help but listen to, for evoking “a feeling of nostalgia for something that never existed.” Later, when he’s about to finally make out, he can’t stop humming “Oh Babe, What Would You Say?” even though he should really just get on with it. Eventually, Benji surrenders to both song and girl: “People you’d never meet offered the words you were unable to shove past your lips, saying what you felt about someone once, or might become capable of feeling one day,” writes Whitehead, in defense of “the oddball tune, the one-hit wonders and fluke achievers” that populate our own memories and vocabularies and airwaves and store shelves. “They spoke for you. Gathering the small, rough things you recognized in yourself.”
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