Thursday, June 29, 2017

Colson Whitehead's "Sag Harbor" (2009)


I am reading Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

Set in the mid 1980s, the story is narrated by Benji, an middle school-aged African American whose family spends the summer on Long Island. I gather that the Sag Harbor community, at the eastern end of the island near the Hamptons, was frequented by African American professionals from New York City.

The tone and structure of the book is reminding me of The Way Back, a coming of age movie from several summers ago about a young teenager’s experiences at a mid 1980s water park. Like that movie, Sag Harbor is infused with an overlay of nostalgia for a simpler time. Reading the book makes me think about my own youth and the way that life in the 1980s did seem quieter (on a societal level) and less complex (on a personal level).

Whitehead uses a comparison of Run D.M.C. lyrics (Here We Go from 1983) and Ice Cube lyrics (Now I Gotta Wet’cha from 1992) to question how society became so much more violent in the course of a decade. Here’s an excerpt:
“All of us, the singers and the audience, were of the same generation. Something happened. Something happened that changed the terms and we went from fighting (I’ll knock that grin off your face) to annihilation (I will wipe you from this Earth). How we got from here to there are the key passages in the history of young black men that no one cares to write. We live it instead.”
This is an excellent book on the level of (1) vivid story-telling (example: the hilarious description of working at Jonni Waffle and the centrality of waffle cones to the 1980s ice cream experience) and (2) individual sentences. Whitehead uses a mix of long and short sentences, and he’s got some awesome nuggets of social commentary.

What’s missing, so far, is a larger thematic depth. Sag Harbor is a coming of age story, and Benji thinks a lot about his relative shyness (as compared to his friends) and awkwardness, but beyond the exploration of adolescence I am not yet sure if Whitehead is making a larger point. I think that the squib on the back cover, which describes the book’s chapters as a series of short stories, accurately captures the essence of Sag Harbor: “it riffs on the essential quests of teenage boys: BB guns, nude beaches, beer and, above all, the elusive secret to fitting in.

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