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Sag Harbor

by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday, 2009)

Sag Harbor is billed as a novel, but it does not work as a novel at all. Instead of complaining about that, we might observe how it does work — as a collection of seven prose albums and an envoi. A handful or two of faces turn up in every album, but the backgrounds and lighting change. The contents are photographic in nature, but they have been retouched enough to warrant treatment as fiction. I doubt that Mr Whitehead intended to present his recollections of the summer of 1985 as "prose albums"; if he had, he might have given his book a sharper finish. I gather that this is Mr Whitehead's first attempt at "straight" fiction, and it is clear that he has worked hard to keep any sense of contrivance at bay. But straight fiction relies on contrivances of its own, having more to do, perhaps, with organization than with imagination. Mr Whitehead's albums are beautifully written, and rich in memorable anecdote. But there is no story in Sag Harbor, on either the long- or the short-form level.

As I mean to suggest, there is no need for story. What is needed is clearer signaling.

First you had to settle the question of out. When did you get out?

This first sentence is rather like the first sentence of a famous novel by Marcel Proust, but the feeling of having been dropped into the middle of a vastness dissipates entirely on the second page.

My name is Ben. In the summer of 1985 I was fifteen years old.

This, too, is reminiscent of a well-known novel, but it would be difficult to imagine two novels with less in common than In Search of Lost Time and Moby-Dick. The latter novel, which claims to be about oceans and their denizens, is, in contrast to Proust's massively sustained meditation, as trivially chatty as a flock of birds on a telephone line. Sag Harbor goes back and forth between the two tonalities with a jazzy insouciance that would be more easy to appreciate as a virtue if the writer exploited the shifts as breath-collecting pauses. Instead, his section breaks are conventionally topical, marking changes in time or place. Irritating juxtapositions of Proust and Melville abound:

Before we started staying at the beach house, we used to stay at the Hempstead House, and behind the Hempstead House was a small white wood-frame cottage with dingy yellow trim. At night, spied through the thin wall of trees separating the properties, the light in their kitchen was the only thing alive in the dark, the constant moon of summer. The woman who lived there in the '50s, my mother reminded us from time to time, used to have a fish fry on Saturdays, selling lunches, and legend had it that DuBois came out to Sag once and ate there. I nodded in a show of pride whenever my mother told us this story even though I had no idea who DuBois was. I had learned to keep my mouth shut about things I didn't know when I sensed that I was expected to know them.

For instance: there were Famous Black People I had never heard of, but it was too late to ask who they were because I was old enough, by some secret measure, that it was a disgrace that I didn't know who they were, these people who had struggled and suffered for every last comfort I enjoyed. How ungrateful. One of my uncles would be over and mention Marcus Garvey and I'd ask, "Who's that?," as the eyes of all the adults in the room slitted for a sad round of tsk-tsking. "Who's Toussaint L'Ouverture?" I'd stupidly inquire, and my father would shout back, "You don't know who Toussaint L'Ouverture is? What do they teach you at that fancy school I bust my ass to send you to?" Not "Iconic Figures of Black Nationalism," that's for sure.

The shift in tone here comes not at the paragraph break but at "How ungrateful." What ought to have followed "these people who had struggled and suffered for every last comfort I enjoyed" is a dilation on that thought, a dense memorial acknowledging the world that two or possibly three generations of material success have sealed off from the narrator's awareness — acknowledging that at least part of a world of slave cottages has become a world of bourgeois summer homes on a tranquil bay.

There is a simple explanation for why Benji Cooper — our narrator — does not pause to reflect on his perspective: he has none. Although written with the hand of a mature and accomplished writer whose capabilities no one would expect to find in a fifteen year-old boy, the book's consciousness is almost miraculously unironic. We have no sense of filtration by grown-up sensibilities, not a whisper of "if I knew then what I know now." This is the great strength of Sag Harbor; it needn't have been its great weakness. To capture the mind of an adolescence in all its turgid inconclusiveness is a great achievement. But to present this mind without some sort of adult framing is to tax the readers patience. (This reader's patience was severely tested, for instance, on page 102, where a four-page memoir of the New Coke fiasco begins. The episode is told with the keen but tiresome excitement of a smart high-school student who has just found out something new about the world and can't stop rattling on about it.) The simple explanation for Benji's solipsism is not a satisfying one.

In the first couple of chapters, we wait for Mr Whitehead to find his story. In the fifth, "To Prevent Flare-Ups," we watch him let a story slip away. arguably because Sag Harbor is about Benji and not his parents. Unfortunately, his parents are simply more interesting people. His mother, the daughter of people who bought one Sag Harbor house, built another, and left both to their daughters, is a lawyer at Nestlι. His father is a podiatrist from Harlem, one of the first beneficiaries, presumably, of the change in ethical climate that inaugurated affirmative action. The chapter stretches over a weekend afternoon. While the father makes the barbecue for which he's locally celebrated (drinking his way through a bottle of gin in the process, the mother enjoys herself on the beach — until there is a small accident.

My mother had been playing the odds. Earlier in the summer, he'd thrown a fit over the poor quality of Dixie brand paper plates and banned their use. In his extensive battery of tests, they could support the weight of chicken and a side of macaroni salad or Ore-Ida Tater Tots. They buckled. Moisture quickly crippled them. You required three, possibly four to achieve adequate firmness. My mother had played the odds that a month later he'd forgotten about his ban and it was safe to buy the most available brand of paper plate. It was one order among many, after all. So she gambled. I saw how it went — my mother nervous while buying the Dixie plates a few weeks after the first incident and holding her breath when he started up the grill. Nothing happened and she relaxed. We'd been using the Dixie paper plates again for a while. Maybe she felt a twinge the first few times, but now it was almost August. Surely it was safe. We all played the odds in our little ways. Sometimes just walking into a room was playing the odds. Eventually the odds caught up to you.

Throughout the chapter, Mr Whitehead sounds the distant thunder of horrifyingly abrupt escalations of rage and physical violence, playing on our literary familiarity with disaster into which inebriated patriarchs can tumble and fanning our awareness of the father's smoldering class resentments. The thunder seems to draw closer, but not very much: this is, after all, a middle-class family at the beach. But we know that the parents sometimes fight so loudly that Benji runs through the house closing windows, lest the neighbors hear; and we see a note in which Benji's mother itemizes her husband's abusive habits. Near the end of the book, Benji is surprised to run into his older sister in the Hamptons. She is with a white man, waiting for a table at a posh restaurant.

Elena took a drag and exhaled through her nose. "Do me a favor and don't tell Mom and Dad you saw me, will you?" she asked. "They wouldn't understand.

"You weren't even going to see us."

"Don't start pouting. Of course I want to see you and Reggie." She squeezed my shoulder. "I'm going to try and come out for longer before I have to go back to school. This was a spur-of-the-moment thing." She stamped out her cigarette and said, "You know how it can be in that house."

"What do you mean?"

"You know what I'm talking about."

"She looked through the window of the restaurant after Derek. "Just do me a favor, Benji, and get out when you can." she said. "Work hard and get into a good school. That way you're out of the house and that's it.

"I don't understand."

"Yes, you do."

It is one thing for a son to be discreet about his parents — we applaud that. It's quite another for an author to shield his characters from his readers. We want to know the particulars of "how it can be in that house" rather more than we care about the generalities of being miserably fifteen.

To be a middle-class teenager who not only happens to be black but who spends his summers in an established community of middle-class blacks is to live a kind of life that hasn't been widely reported in American literature, and it's good of Mr Whitehead to give them such clear expression. I found myself wondering, though, about a pejorative term that gets knocked out from time to time: bourgie. It is well known by now that there are two groups of people that don't get on at all well in the modern world: bourgeois adults and their adolescent children. But what extra echoes does "bourgie" have for a black teen-ager? Is it condescending to ask if there are "extra echoes"? To what extent — it would seem at times that the extent must be great — is Benji unconscious of being black? Or conscious of being black in the way that I was conscious of being Roman Catholic in a profoundly WASP community?

My sense is that it is too soon for Colson Whitehead to be tackling such a question. It is too soon in his life, certainly — by about fifteen years, I'd say; if nothing else, he needs the perspective that will come from watching the next generation grow up. It may be too soon in American history as well. Ninevah and Azurest, the black neighborhoods of Sag Harbor that Mr Whitehead writes about with rich Proustian aplomb and magpie Melvillean miscellany, are still black neighborhoods. As the tesserated account of Benji's parents' marriage suggests, "black" is falsely simplistic: when the children of old-time families marry ghetto strivers, and lighter-colored skin is involuntarily valorized, the concept of "race" breaks down (as well it ought). The American tale of awkward, upward mobility is almost complete. But it won't be finished until skin color no longer distinguishes the neighborhoods of Sag Harbor. (August 2009)

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