Friday, July 27, 2012

Summer Times: Colson Whitehead's "Sag Harbor"

NOTE: Some of the cited passages are NSFW.

I'm participating in a new book club, organized by one of my co-workers. I volunteered to host the July session, with the selection being Colson Whitehead's 2009 novel Sag Harbor. Before I get into the book itself, the book club meeting gently reinforced the fact that literary critics, whether of the armchair or professional variety, can stumble on intentions and do the occasional misreading. The most recent example is Janet Maslin's misreading of Patrick Somerville's This Bright River, which led the author to pen his own response, the much-shared "Thank You For Killing My Novel." When I was in college, I wrote several pages' worth of criticism on a short story (I've forgotten which one), only to be called to my professor's office to be told I had missed a key element of the plot, one so big that it rendered my paper completely wrong. As my stomach clenched, the professor smiled and offered me a chance to rewrite it. He told me a story about his first year of teaching: he was explaining a text to a full lecture hall, and a student raised his hand and said "I hate to interrupt, but that's not what happened in the book." The professor told me how embarrassed he was when he realized his student was right, that he had truly gaffed on the plot. So where am I going with this? I'll explain in more detail as I get into Sag Harbor's intricacies, but my opening statement to the book club was eventually proven to be the opposite of Whitehead's most likely intentions.

The novel tells the story of Benji, a black teenager who spends his summers at his family's home in Sag Harbor. His parents normally come on the weekends, giving him and his brother free reign during the week. It's 1985, Benji is fifteen years old, and he's determined to reinvent his image and personality. During the school year, he's one of the few black students at his prep school, but during the summer, he's part of a larger group of well-to-do black vacationers in the area. His friends are a cast of characters with unique personalities, but with traits that anyone can remember from their high school days: Marcus tends to get left behind on group outings; Randy calls shots based on the fact that he has a car; NP (with a hilarious nickname origin that would be too much to spoil here) grandly exaggerates his exploits; and so on. Benji observes the (mis)adventures and monotony of a long summer, but what seems like the foundation for a typical coming of age novel is rather a platform for careful details of personalities and teenage yearnings without any true dramatic climaxes or "payoffs." However, Whitehead's writing turns the mundane into fascinating studies of interactions. Through Benji's narration, the stories behind the actions and personalities of him and his friends become compelling. A good example is the youthful obsession with complex ritual handshakes:

"Yes, the handshakes were out, shaming me with their permutations and slippery routines. Slam, grip, flutter, snap. Or was it slam, flutter, grip, snap? I was all thumbs when it came to shakes. Devised in the underground soul laboratories of Harlem, pounded out in the blacker-than-thou sweatshops of the South Bronx, the new handshakes always had me faltering in embarrassment. Like this? No, you didn't stick to the landing: the judges give it 4.6 (Whitehead 43)."

Experimentation with language is also carefully, hilariously rendered:

"I said 'Shut up, bitch.' I'd been experimenting with 'bitch,' trying it out every couple of days. Going well so far, from the response (Whitehead 93)."

"You could also preface things with a throat-clearing 'You fuckin',' as in 'You fuckin' Cha-Ka from Land Of the Lost-lookin' motherfucker,' directed at Bobby, for example, who had light brown skin, light brown hair, and indeed shared these characteristics with the hominid sidekick on the Saturday morning adventure show Land Of the Lost. 'You fuckin'' acted as a rhetorical pause, allowing the speaker a few extra seconds to pluck some splendid modifier out of the invective ether, and giving the listener a chance to gird himself for the top-notch put-down/splendid imagery to follow (Whitehead 41-42)."

Benji and his brother Reggie survive during the week by working at an ice cream parlor and Burger King, respectively (Whitehead is spot-on in his descriptions of the drudgery and nastiness of summertime food counter work). The rest of the time is spent awaiting the parental visits on the weekends and trying to cram as much activity into the end of the week as possible. Some of these are specific (Benji accidentally gets shot in the eye during a BB gun war), and sometimes these are general. Throughout, Whitehead never wanes in at least a succinct sociological overview of the happenings, and even with mentions of The Cosby Show and New Coke, the events aren't exclusive to Benji's 1985. The teenage male dynamics can apply to almost any era or demographic.

"Summers we brawled. We were hungry for slight, for provocations big and small, and when one didn't appear, we trumped up charges. Turf. The more whole you were, the more turf you had. You could tolerate the occasional trespass. But if you had so little turf that you felt like you barely had any air? You told someone they had crossed a line they didn't know existed. Then you punched them in the face.
The first equations of manhood. Generally you punched someone younger and smaller. Common sense. A more even match was sometimes unavoidable. The standard fight was brief and awkward. A quick blow to the face sent you into your favorite stance, one that cannot be found in any boxing primer in the land, or sent you searching after a cherished martial-arts movie pose, Praying Mantis, Turtle Position (Whitehead 136)."

So where did my book club steer me in the right direction? Based on the other Whitehead novels I've read (The Intuitionist and John Henry Days), I was expecting, either metaphorically or explicitly, more explorations on racial issues, and Whitehead does touch upon these, but not in a way that makes them the driving forces of the novel. My original complaint was that Whitehead would present a racial or sociological issue, and then move on to another plot point. However, as I've come to realize: Benji is fifteen years old. Almost no fifteen year old has the capacity to ruminate on issues except on a surface level. Therefore, Whitehead has made Benji one of the most realistic teen characters in recent fiction. As a black citizen, he's obviously aware and sensitive to cultural issues, but his main fascinations are with sex, avoiding boredom, and how he's perceived to others. That's not to say that Benji's narration isn't touching or without complexities. His relationship with his father is fraught with tension. His father is tough, teaching Benji how to stand up for himself in the face of racism, but also excessively intense, getting into fierce arguments with his wife about, of all things, the purchase of the wrong kind of paper plates. Benji has a chance encounter with his older sister, a beautifully rendered scene that, while fleeting, is Benji's biggest "coming of age" moment, when he realizes his sister has no plans to visit the house while she's in town. Even followed up later by Benji's first experience being alone with a girl, the meeting with Elena holds the most emotional weight.

"'What are you doing here? When did you get out?'
'I just popped in for the weekend,' she said. 'I'm visiting Derek.'
Bobby checked out her friend, raising a skeptical eyebrow.
I said, 'Oh, I didn't know.'
'It was a last-minute thing.'
'When are you coming over? 'Cause I work--' I began to say. Because I didn't want to miss her.
'I'm probably not going to have time to make it over there,' she said. 'Probably. It's just a quick visit.'
'Oh. (Whitehead 237)'"

Being a series of small and less-small moments, Sag Harbor is a challenge to discuss and write about without resorting to the basic recaps of the various scenes. However, its simplicity is very deceptive, since every action has a direct link to either Benji's emotions and makeup or Sag Harbor's citizens and demographics. Its creation doesn't have the complicated setups of Whitehead's first two novels, but that doesn't mean its lacking; the novel asks some of the same questions in a different format. I tend to be wary of books or films that have a "coming of age" angle, since this is normally a fancy way of saying a given character loses his or her innocence/virginity/combination of the two. However, Benji remains relatively untouched by the end of the summer, despite some new understandings and experiences. Whitehead is smart enough to show that a single summer, despite its literary potential, isn't enough to truly change someone. Benji still has a lot of teen years left, as well as adulthood, and his keen observations are more for the reader's sake than his own. Sag Harbor also continues with what Whitehead occasionally did in John Henry Days, blending a literary work with genuine hilarity. That's a very rare balance, since comical writing is not an easy task. However, this work manages to combine hilarity, genuinely moving discoveries, and breezy summertime happenings into a work with fascinating cultural depictions. Whitehead is one of the most fantastically diverse writers working today, not out of a need to reinvent himself, but out of his ability to explore a myriad of topics in wildly different formats.

Work Cited:
Whitehead, Colson. Sag Harbor. Copyright 2009 by Colson Whitehead.

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