Sag Harbor ~ Colson Whitehead

sagI’ve read a few of Colson Whitehead‘s books (The Intuitionist, John Henry Days) , and he always keeps me coming back for more  though he’s not one of those author’s that I have to this point anticipated with relish. I keep expecting more, because I think he has it in him.

His latest book seems on the same plane to me: accomplished, interesting in general, well-written including some memorable moments of recognizable universal insight. Yet, not a book that has me in that “I can’t wait for his next book” mode. Not a book either that has caused me to give up on him. I’d probably pick-up his next book as a fill-in. A let’s see what Colson has to say now thing if there wasn’t something more pressing that I just had to read..

Although somewhat of a departure for Whitehead, it’s a recognizable piece of his work. More autobiographical that his previous books, and therefore somewhat less ambitious. In Sag Harbor, Whitehead writes about a summer in the ’80’s on the cusp of growing up a little more. Moving from 15 to 16. First beers, first kisses, the braces come off, the young black man begins to find himself and understandhis place in the world a little better. And understand his place in his community as well. And his community’s place in the larger community.

Sag Harbor is to Long Island what Oak Bluffs is to Martha’s Vineyard: A word of mouth built up black summer place for middle and upper middle class black professionals. A place where they can be a part of a community and let the guards down for summer retreats. 

The book is replete with ’80’s pop culture references, which may or may not be your thing. Beyond that though, there are wonderful little vignettes like this one. End of summer gender and age division Labor Day races:

The girls went first. The 5-to-7 year olds who believed the secret of speed was in the face, in the fierce, scrunched expressions they pushed ahead of their bodies, and then the 8-to 10’s, quicksilver in ponytails, and finally the gawky and glorious 11 to 12’s, racing for the last time, sprinting desperate;y into teenage preoccupations and fleeing the girls they had been.

I never had one place that my family went every summer (as a musician, my father took various summer gigs over the years, and sometimes we went with, and sometimes we did not). So though I cannot relate to the sense of place and changing place as point of reference, Whitehead does allow for a real feel of the particularities of summer – beginning and ending. At that age, the beginnings and endings are bigger and more significant than they will ever be again.  

Even a throw away line like this one has a certain flair:

Over time I have learned that what makes a man is not his ideas or his words, what makes a man is the ability to squeeze out a ferocious stream of lighter-fluid from a can and throw a match on it.

This book is one that many times comes out as a first novel. Whitehead waited on it, but still it had to be written. Maybe this now clears the deck for something more lasting and great.



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