‘Sag Harbor: A Novel’ by Colson Whitehead
Doubleday: 288 pp., $24.95
The author video is fast becoming de rigueur on the book-promoting front -- even, apparently, for critically feted, MacArthur “genius” award-winning writers such as Colson Whitehead. Now playing online, Whitehead’s video features him strolling around the Long Island town of Sag Harbor, setting and title of his amiable fourth novel. He recalls his own mid-'80s childhood summers spent there in an African American enclave and tells us a little about the novel’s crew of Sag Harbor boys. The goal -- a worthy one -- is to remind Internet loiterers that there are more edifying ways to pass their time.
Mission accomplished. Whitehead’s charm and low-key wit make a good case for logging off and reading his book -- except, oddly, when he says this: “Not a lot happens . . . there’s no dead body like they find in ‘Stand By Me.’ There’s not, like, a lynching and the KKK chasing them through the Hamptons. It’s an attempt to capture how people really spend their summers, which is a lot of tedium, a few insights, but not much to show for it.”
Not a lot happens. I guess you could say the same about “Mrs. Dalloway,” but still, a curious plug for a novel. Don’t readers want something to happen over 288 pages? Whitehead is a smart guy and a dazzling talent -- see, especially, his neo-noir (and richly plotted) elevator-inspector debut, “The Intuitionist” -- so it’s hard to know whether he’s being defensive or staking out a principled position. Should something happen in a novel? Is plot a required element of fiction?
“Sag Harbor” poses such existential literary questions. For this is a book crowded with incident that is nevertheless resolutely devoid of plot. Fifteen-year-old Benji Cooper is spending the summer of 1985 as he always does, in Sag Harbor with his younger brother, Reggie. His parents work in Manhattan and join their sons only on the weekends, so Monday to Friday is gloriously unsupervised time.
Benji and his somewhat interchangeable gang of buddies -- Marcus, NP, Kevin, Bobby, Clive (just try to keep them all straight) -- make the most of it, hitting the beach, practicing elaborate handshakes, shooting one another with BB guns, trying to talk their way into a rap concert and exchanging hilariously profane takedowns. The book is rich in authentic boy-talk. “Yo, yo, listen,” NP tells the others. “I was walking by the Miller House and I went to take a look at their Rolls and get this, I was like, they left the keys in the ignition . . . I was like Thurston Howell the Third. . . . !”
Sag Harbor is also rich in 1985 -- the sportswear, the radio hits, the sudden and unaccountable appearance of New Coke. One amusing riff, in a book stuffed with them, has Benji, an erstwhile geek, admitting that he still occasionally arranges the world via a Dungeons and Dragons classification system: Lawful Good (naps), Chaotic Good (crazy Uncle Nelson), Lawful Evil (his science teacher), Chaotic Evil (“the Older Boys of Sag”).
Whitehead’s stylistic talents are amply on display. Benji takes a summer job scooping ice cream at Jonni Waffle, which becomes, in Whitehead’s hands, an imaginative minimum-wage hell. “The dust of the waffle mixture swirled in the air like asbestos in the guts of a condemned factory, roosted in the soft warrens of the lungs, clung to hair like sweet dandruff. . . . When you worked the waffle grills, the steam of the cooking cones became a localized atmosphere, the tarpit exhalations of an ancient, stunted planet.” Whitehead has a David Foster Wallace-esque knack for punctuating meticulously figurative constructions with deadpan slacker wit. From a paragraph on the use of a popular epithet, Whitehead writes, “Dag was bitter acknowledgment of the brutish machinery of the world. It was a glimpse into the cruel void, as evidenced by the fact that it was often followed by, ‘That was cold.’ ”
Language, humor, riff, anecdote (about, say, holding Emily Dorfman’s hand at the roller rink) -- these are what the book offers in place of a sustained storyline. You can’t help but admire Whitehead’s writerly gifts, but there’s something idling and indolent about his method here. “Sag Harbor” reminded me, not in a good way, of “The Colossus of New York,” Whitehead’s book-length love letter to his home city: stylistically virtuosic but stubbornly hard to finish.
It’s poor form to speculate, but I’ll go ahead: Whitehead seems uneasy with the confessional demands of autobiography. For that’s surely what this is -- memoir masquerading as a novel. Whitehead says as much in his amusing “Message From the Author,” included with my advance copy: “I’ve always been a bit of a plodder, which is why I now present my Autobiographical Fourth Novel, as opposed to the standard Autobiographical First Novel.” So let’s grant that Benji, a brainy black kid marooned at a very white Upper East Side private school, is a Whitehead stand-in, and we’ll guess that Benji’s family bears some resemblance to the author’s own. This would explain the skittish way he describes their rather alarming dysfunctions. His father is, in glimpses, a brutish drunk; he hits Benji in the face, calls Reggie a demoralizing (and unprintable) nickname, verbally abuses their mother. But Benji’s disassociated narration treats this as just one more feature of the summer landscape, no more worthy of the reader’s attention than the season’s Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam track.
“I was wired not to let other people know our business,” Benji says at one point -- a wariness that extends to the novel itself. Perhaps novels don’t require plots, but it seems to me they do need something: a sense of excavation, some deeper fathom of character attained. For all its amusements and felicities of language, “Sag Harbor” never dives very far below the surface. Emotionally, it’s a low-stakes affair, which is another way of saying it’s a little too much like summer for its own good.
Antrim is the author of the novel “The Headmaster Ritual.”
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