In his fourth novel, Sag Harbor, Colson Whitehead focuses his considerable wit and imagination on the traditional coming-of-age story, with far from traditional results. Although the events in the novel are based on his own summers at Sag Harbor, the author has said that his invented characters lead much more interesting lives than he did. Benji Cooper, fifteen years old, is “out” for the summer, having come from New York City to a beach house in Azurest, a colony on Long Island Bay populated by wealthy African American professional families. Benji and his brother Reggie attend a predominantly white prep school in Manhattan. White people, unaccustomed to seeing African American children dressed in khakis and blazers on their way to school, mistake them for the children of African diplomats. During the school year, Benji revels in his role as the token African American, invited by the politically correct parents of his schoolmates to attend bar mitzvahs where he can sample exotic food and try to make out with the girls. When summer comes, though, he is free to experiment and invent himself.
The older Benji who narrates the novel casts his satirical eye on the behavior of both African American and white people in an emerging postracial world. As a college student, he reveals, he discovered W. E. B. Du Bois’s doctrine of double-consciousness, that African Americans must struggle to reconcile their outward existence in the white world with their desire to be authentically black. The younger Benji, eager to make a place for himself in his summer world, does not yet understand that this is his quest. As he says, “If I had enough information I might know how to be.” He is, by turns, innocent and appealing in his teenaged confusion, yet an astute observer of his friends and family and of the people of the summer community.
The story begins with Benji’s arrival at the beach house and ends with a Labor Day picnic. The six chapters in between, loosely organized around the summer’s events, take off in a series of jazz riffs that allow Benji to observe the world around him and at the same time try to learn how to grow into the role of the man he will become. His parents, a successful doctor and lawyer, work in the city, coming out only on weekends. Benji and Reggie are left to fend for themselves during the week. They have summer jobsBenji at Jonni Waffle, an ice cream stand, and Reggie at Burger King.
Benji’s dead-on observations of the events of the summer of 1985 are uproariously funny. The adult narrator comments, but only rarely, to place the story in its larger context. Benji hopes to get rid of his childish nickname and become Ben, but this attempt is doomed to failure. His descriptions are loaded with the iconic artifacts of the 1980’s, including Swanson television dinners, Walkman radios, and Classic Coke. Benji is something of a nerd, still wearing braces on his teeth and embarrassed by school photographs of his bad haircut. He wants desperately to fit in with his group but is usually a step behind his friends, unable to master the complex handshakes of the ever-changing African American street culture. He is addicted to Dungeons and Dragons, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), which he has only seen edited for television, and his Six Million Dollar Man action figurean icon of the 1970’s that he would have acquired at a younger age.
The African American beach colony of Azurest, unfamiliar territory to white Americans, was built by the hard-working grandparents of Benji’s generation as an escape from the racial tensions of the city, a place for themselves. The prime Long Island real estate of the Hamptons belongs to wealthy white people. The Rock and the Creek mark the end of the African American enclave and the beginning of the white territory into which the boys are forbidden to venture. White people, in their turn, become uneasy when they find themselves on a beach populated by African Americans and realize that there they are the intruders. At Sag Harbor, Benji and his friends are free to be themselves while sardonically mocking their parents’ generation and the white people who patronize the resort businesses where they work.
Benji and his friends are preoccupied with definitions of “cool” and “uncool.” Their discussions, which often become arguments and occasionally fights, focus on the nuances of racial identification. They make jokes about the Ku Klux Klan and “Massa,” but nervously and never in the presence of their parents. They seek to determine whether their light-skinned boss at the ice cream stand is African American by observing whether he displays an identifying “black”...
(The entire section is 1918 words.)