Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

09/05/09, The Times

Benji is fifteen in 1985. He and his brother, Reggie, so close that they might almost be twins, attend a private school in Manhattan and spend their summer vacations in Sag Harbor, Long Island, a predominantly white enclave where, as black children of an affluent doctor-lawyer couple, they are somewhat of a rarity. But this book is not about race, or at least, not overwhelmingly and obtrusively; it is about that watershed year where the transition is made from adolescence to incipient adulthood and Colson Whitehead’s fifth novel, Sag Harbor, scores one hit after another, page after page, getting under the skin of this hyperawkward, acutely self-conscious threshold period of life, its permanent guarantee of outsider status to those undergoing it, its alienations and alliances.

Narrated by Benji, this is more of a mood book rather than a plot- or event-driven novel. Nothing much happens. Benji ogles at girls along with the other African-American kids who summer in Sag Harbor. He gets a job at an ice-cream shop. He learns to look after himself and Reggie during the long periods his parents are back in New York. The long separation from his brother begins. There are the usual riffs on girls, concerts, hanging out, frozen food, fizzy pop, music, beer, video games, TV, but all written with such hip and witty eloquence that they seem both freshly-minted and deeply familiar to a certain generation, not a mean feat to pull off. While psychologically authentic in its recording of the twilight, inner world of an adolescent, it is also inalienably anchored to the minutiae and textures of the real, material world of the eighties.

And yet it is exactly this faithful rootedness to its particular time and place that is the book’s undoing because it prevents Sag Harbor from transcending the terribly humdrum category of a coming-of-age narrative. While relentless tattooing of the text with pop culture references – Converse High Tops vs Filas, Siouxsie and the Banshees vs Run DMC, the Cosby Show, Fangoria magazine, ‘Bette Davis Eyes’, The Smiths – purchases a kind of trendy street-cred for both book and author, it comes at several costs, the foremost being a kind of cultural delimitation, the inability to move the book away from the particular to the general. Compared with a classic with similar concerns, Le Grand Meaulnes, written at a time when there was no pressure to tick pop cultural references in a bid to buy both legitimacy, authenticity, and ‘cool’, Sag Harbor appears as dated as last month’s newspaper. Ten or twenty years down the line, Alain-Fournier’s timeless book will continue to speak to us, while Whitehead’s, if remembered, will only be seen as a curiosity of nostalgia-lit.

This is lamentable because Whitehead’s first work, The Intuitionist, a surreal Pynchonesque fable about race, was touched by genius. While it is impossible not to like Sag Harbor and its genuinely empathetic, intelligent tone, it is equally impossible to return a meaningful answer to the question it invariably raises: ‘So what?’