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December 21, 2009

Sag Harbor
by Colson Whitehead

Aristotle, in the Poetics, said that the worst kind of plot was the episodic—the kind where not much happens, it’s just one damn thing after another.  I frankly don’t agree with the ancient Greek and am just fine with episodic plots (isn’t that the way life really is?) and I think there’s much to be admired in the one damn thing after another Sag Harbor in which the improbably-named veteran novelist Colson Whitehead (he’s black, but that name—how white can you get?…it’s as if almost Thurston Howell III…oh wait, a character in the novel claims to have ‘borrowed’ a Bentley invoking the spirit of Mr. Howell… never mind) writes a near-memoir first-person joke-riddled tale of a fifteen year-old black kid (a self-confessed ABBA-liking nerd) named Benji who spends the summer of 1985 scooping ice cream in a well-established upscale black community way out amongst the honkiness of eastern Long Island.  As Whitehead has said, Sag Harbor is about “not much” and set amidst the audio/visual pre-Internet thingness of “crappy 80s culture.”

What makes it work?  It’s the jokes. It’s the terribly funny presentation of the very small matters of life that loom so large to the inhabitants of teenage summers—we’ve all been there and we all understand and can appreciate the hilariously trifling but necessary comparing and contrasting of Stouffers frozen dinners or the detailed discussion of the syntax and grammatical acrobatics of the artful black teenage insult—it is the intense self-scrutiny described by Benji that elevate these events and decisions to epic level.  With your monkey ass.

But it’s not only the charm and humor of a Huck Finn view of the world from the teenage cheap seats.  Whitehead can shift levels of diction with the speed and precision of a clever kid twirling the radio dials from AM Lite to FM Cool.  Passages like:

“Waking up early in that house was science fiction stuff.  The sky over the wetlands was a fine, simmering blue, slowly boiling up morning.  Before you lay the dead, misty surface of the bay, an imperturbable line of dark gray, a slab of ancient stone come out from under the earth.  A reversal there: the sky was liquid, the water a solid screen….a mute primordial theatre.”

This is an older, wiser Benji talking here, Whitehead’s words more than Benji’s.  And it is with these lovely passages of lyrical beauty that Whitehead succeeds in elevating the novel above and beyond that of a simple and fun tale of adolescent outsider angst and moves it to the deeper, long-buried layers of a more personal archaeological dig.

Personal burgers.

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From → Fiction

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