Sag Harbor

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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...

(This entire section contains 1918 words.)

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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” walk. Benji describes to his friends, in hilarious detail, the procedure an African American kid must follow to carry a watermelon down the main street without becoming a racial stereotype. Their activities are accompanied by the pop music of the 1980’s, generating heated arguments about which groups are acceptably cool for black teenagers. They also observe such peculiarities of white people as their habit of “’fro-touching,” the compulsion to feel the hair of African American kids.

The boys have invented their own tribal language, and the author includes an explanatory chart of its verb forms. The favored word is “dag,” serving multiple purposes from mild profanity to a sardonic comment on the unfairness of life in general. Inspired by the beginnings of hip-hop culture, they talk like gangsters, but, as privileged kids, they have to learn the lingo from television and movies rather than firsthand experience. They are practiced code-switchers, knowing how to distinguish the language of the “’hood” from the acceptable usage of the adult world. Much of their time is spent trying to find girls or to convince an adult to buy the beer that fuels their evening adventures. One of Benji’s preoccupations is to arrange a “tit collision,” the not-so-subtle brush of his elbow against the breast of his coworker at Jonni Waffle.

Benji’s parents, mostly absent from the story, may resemble the idealized, upper-middle-class parents portrayed in the African American sitcom The Cosby Show, but the comparison is superficial. Shadowing the narrative, and reported matter-of-factly by Benji, is his father’s abusiveness. Dr. Cooper eases back from city life each weekend with his barbeque and his gin-and-tonic. Benji listens to the opening and closing of the liquor-cabinet door for clues about how much his father has drunk so he can plan his escape. Their father demeans Reggie with an insulting name and verbally harangues Benji’s mother, starting the summer-long arguments that drive Benji and Reggie from the house and that have caused their older sister Elena to take a summer job elsewhere. During one school year, Benji reported a racial insult from a white classmate; he had walked away without a confrontation. His father was angry and punched Benji hard several times in the face. He sought to teach Benji never to back down from a fight, because nobody could hit him harder than his father could. In Dr. Cooper’s world, an African American man has to learn how to defend himself against racism.

The generation gap between the father and son is an underlying theme in the narrative. Benji’s father, who grew up in the rough inner city, listens to Afrocentric radio and watches CNN for reports of violence against African Americans. He sends his sons to an exclusive prep school, as befits an upwardly mobile African American family, but he is angered that they are learning nothing about African American history. Benji acknowledges, but cannot identify with, the racial insecurities of the older generation. Once, Benji and Reggie rode their bicycles into the white part of town and were terrified by a snarling Doberman blocking their path. When their father learned of the incident, he drove the car to the neighborhood and saw a blackfaced lawn jockey in the front yard. White people, he explained, use lawn jockeys to train their dogs to attack when they see a black face. Benji reports the incident without comment.

Benji and his friends engage in potentially dangerous recreation. The group obtains BB guns, and the boys decide to test their mettle in a gang war. They make rulesthat copper beads and repeat shots are forbiddenbut the war never gets off the ground: Randy ignores the rules and shoots Benji in the eye socket, causing pain and bleeding and endangering his eyesight. Because his parents will find out if he goes to the hospital, he must deal with the injury himself. He attempts primitive surgery with a razor blade but cannot remove the BB.

The narrator reports with casual indifference that the BB is still in place and is not likely to kill him, but in a rare departure from his comic stance, he offers a sobering glimpse into the boys’ future: “As time went on we learned to arm ourselves in different ways. Some of us with real guns, some of us with more ephemeral weapons, an idea or improbable plan or some sort of formulation about how best to move through the world.” He adds, without explanation, that one of the boys will die and another will be paralyzed.

The comedy resumes when Benji is about to experience a traditional coming-of-age event, the sexual initiation. He finds himself in an unexpected and opportune situation: He and the desirable Melanie are exploring the empty beach house that used to belong to his parents. They wander to the upstairs bedroom, where their kisses become passionate. Suddenly, headlights appear in the drivewaythe house is not empty, after all. The would-be lovers make a hasty escape through the upstairs window and jump to the ground. The next day at Jonni Waffle, Melanie coldly dismisses Benji and goes off with her boyfriend.

Benji doubts that he has learned anything about himself by Labor Day, but, ever the optimist, he makes plans for the coming school year, when he will be sixteen. He decides to buy combat boots to wear with his school uniformperhaps not a significant step toward maturity, but very Benji-like in his intention to defy convention and declare his individuality.

Whitehead’s novel has received lavish attention from critics who praise his comic genius and his ingenuity in shedding new light on the United States’ complex social issues. His three previous novels have been acclaimed for their edgy originality and eloquent mastery of language. Several critics have dissenting views about this novel, but these are minor notes in the general praise. The narrative tends to meander, but the author claims that little happens in the summer, so the meandering is motivated. The novel’s extended, detailed descriptions of the working day at Jonni Waffle and its constant references to the pop culture of the 1980’s may try the patience of some readers. Inevitably, as an African American writer, Whitehead has been taken to task for avoiding the risk of focusing on weightier issues. However, in departing from the traditional protest novels of writers such as James Baldwin and Richard Wright, Whitehead represents the ambiguous experiences of a new generation of African Americans in an emerging postracial America.

This story will entertain readers of any race, ethnicity, or generation in its reminiscences of a nostalgic world before digital gadgetry, in which confused young people must rely on personal confrontations with one another and the community around them in order to grow into authentic, confident adulthood.


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Booklist 105, no. 12 (February 15, 2009): 5.

Esquire 151, no. 4 (April, 2009): 42.

Kirkus Reviews 77, no. 5 (March 1, 2009): 53.

Library Journal 134, no. 5 (March 15, 2009): 99.

New Criterion 27, no. 9 (May, 2009): 33-38.

New Statesman 138, no. 4949 (May 18, 2009): 48.

The New York Times, April. 27, 2009, p. C1.

The New York Times Book Review, May 3, 2009, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly 256, no. 8 (February 23, 2009): 33.

Rolling Stone, June 11, 2009, p. 90.

San Francisco Chronicle, May 3, 2009, p. H3.

The Times (London), May 9, 2009, p.11.

Vanity Fair, no. 585 (May, 2009): 60

The Village Voice 54, no. 18 (April 29, 2009): 35.

The Wall Street Journal, January 2, 2009, p. W10.