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sag harbor

11 august 2009

Colson Whitehead has now written five books. The first four, though disparate in style, share a certain heightening of reality: the magical-realist demi-noir Intuitionist, the sprawling, carnivalesque satire John Henry Days, the abstract, distant Colossus of New York, and the utopia-gone-wrong Apex Hides the Hurt. His fifth book, Sag Harbor, is a departure in an entirely new direction: transparent contemporary realism. It's about the summer its narrator was 15, and the crazy things he and his friends did hanging at the beach.

It's the novel most brooding, would-be writers intend, at 15, to write someday, and sometimes even announce to their beachcombing peers: hey, I'm gonna write a book someday and put you in it, and you, and you . . . Few of us live up to the threat.

For a novelist with some serious postmodern credentials, it's pretty daring to write something so conventional. In fact, not just conventional but juvenile. In all but marketing, Sag Harbor is a Young Adult novel. It's a rueful look at coming of age. The protagonist / narrator, Benji Cooper, becomes more and more aware of his parents' stressful relationship and his father's abusiveness. He tries to protect his 14-year-old brother Reggie from the storms of growing up, but with little success. He gets a crumby minimum-wage summer job. He gets into stupid mild mischief. He gets his braces off and lo! has his first Young Adult kiss.

In fact, by the standards of the problems that protagonists encounter on every page of 21st-century YA novels, Sag Harbor is pretty mild stuff. Its language is R-rated and highly allusive, but its themes are tamer than those in Walter Dean Myers or Chris Crutcher.

I greatly enjoyed Sag Harbor, but I'm at something of a loss to evaluate it. It's a largely plotless series of vignettes, held together only by the resort calendar of the East End of Long Island. It's an interesting cultural study of an upper-middle-class African-American community, and a document of certain 1980s fashions in clothes and music. But it's not a great novel, by any means. It has nowhere to go: the narrator's options are limited as much by genre as by race, class, and age. He must confront, and muddle past, the obstacles that face young adults in novel after novel.

Sag Harbor is distinguished not by ideas or story, but by its inventive, richly dialogic language. Every sentence is a compound of unmarked quotations from this or that pocket of American popular culture. Its bent, despite the display of some adolescent angst, is comic. It's not only laugh-out-loud funny at many points, but it is the kind of book where nothing really bad happens, or can happen. In that, it ironically marks itself as adult reading instead of juvenile. In true Young Adult novels, there's always a fiery drunken car crash to make a temperance point, or a teen pregnancy or a drug overdose or a gangland murder. Sag Harbor stays on the side of the angels – and even though Benji Cooper often feels that his 15-year-old body can do nothing right, there are guardian angels protecting even him from the things that can go wrong in the Hamptons.

Whitehead, Colson. Sag Harbor. New York: Doubleday, 2009.

UPDATE 08.15.09: It's automatic to compare an African-American writer to other African-Americans: the kind of reflex that both recognizes the richness of the African-American tradition but also tends to build a wall around that tradition. A book by a black writer set in Sag Harbor, Long Island, for instance, automatically makes one think of Walter Mosley's Man in My Basement (2004) – but only briefly, as Whitehead's Sag Harbor couldn't be more unlike Mosley's psycho-social thriller. Actually, the book that Sag Harbor most reminds me of is white English novelist Nick Hornby's High Fidelity (1995). A strong theme in each novel is the power of popular song – so much so that both of them leave you with earworms for days after you read them.