As a fan of The Intuitionist, I’m excited to learn that Colson Whitehead has recently released a new book titled Sag Harbour. So I returned to my blog just in time because this black book news is in all the papers. In “How to Be Black at the Beach,” Ron Charles of the Washington Post writes:
No one writes with more acrobatic imagination and good humor about the complexities of race in America than Colson Whitehead. In “The Intuitionist” and “John Henry Days,” he evoked the nation’s racial history as deftly as he created bizarre alternatives. And in his 2003 paean to his home town, “The Colossus of New York,” he captured the choreography of a vibrant, multicultural city. Now he surprises us again with a charming autobiographical novel that comes honey-glazed with nostalgia. Detailing the life of a dorky teenager in a community that’s peculiar but oddly familiar, “Sag Harbor” is a kind of black “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” but it’s spiced with the anxieties of being African American in a culture determined to dictate what that means.
Like Stephen Carter, Whitehead writes about an enclave of upper-middle-class blacks, in this case a contented but separate summer resort on Long Island. (Whenever the narrator mentions Sag Harbor to white people in New York, they say, “Oh, I didn’t know black people went out there.”) Straddling parts of East Hampton and Southampton, Sag Harbor is an ancient town by American standards, a whaling community that predates the Revolution (it’s mentioned in “Moby-Dick”). But the 20-acre section that Whitehead celebrates was settled in the 1930s and ’40s by blacks from Harlem, Brooklyn and parts of New Jersey, professional people who “had fought to make a good life for themselves, vanquished the primitives and barbarians out to kill them, keep them out, string them up, and they wanted all the spoils of their struggle. A place to go in the summer with their families. To make something new.”
Readers who mistakenly imagine that authors are really describing themselves in their novels will be on firmer ground this time. “The people are made up,” Whitehead has said, “but the streets and the houses are all real. My old haunts are in here.” The narrator, Benji Cooper, knows that “according to the world, we were the definition of paradox: black boys with beach houses . . . but it never occurred to us that there was anything strange about it.” Every year he and his carefree younger brother leave their Manhattan prep school, where they seem as exotic as the sons of an African diplomat, to spend the summer in the ranch bungalow built by their grandparents on Sag Harbor. Though the novel covers several years of boyhood adventures, it opens with the anticipation of arriving by car in June and ends in the melancholy twilight of Labor Day when the new school year beckons once again with the chance of reinvention. (Read more . . .)
And thanks to The New York Times, an excerpt:
Notions of Roller Rink Infinity
First you had to settle the question of out. When did you get out? Asking this was showing off, even though anyone you could brag to had received the same gift and had come by it the same way you did. Same sun wrapped in shiny paper, same soft benevolent sky, same gravel road that sooner or later skinned you. It was hard not to believe it belonged to you more than anyone else, made for you and waiting all these years for you to come along. Everyone felt that way. We were grateful just to be standing there in that heat after such a long bleak year in the city. When did you get out? was the sound of our trap biting shut; we took the bait year after year, pure pinned joy in the town of Sag Harbor.
Then there was the next out: How long are you out for?–and the competition had begun. The magic answer was Through Labor Day or The Whole Summer. Anything less was to signal misfortune. Out for a weekend at the start of the season, to open up the house, sweep cracks, that was okay. But only coming out for a month? A week? What was wrong, were you having financial difficulties? Everyone had financial difficulties, sure, but to let it interfere with Sag, your shit was seriously amiss. Out for a week, a month, and you were allowing yourself to be cheated by life. Ask, How long are you out for? and a cloud wiped the sun. The question trailed a whiff of autumn. All answers contemplated the end, the death of summer at its very beginning. Still waiting for the bay to warm up so you could go for a swim and already picturing it frozen over. Labor Day suddenly not so far off at all. (Read more . . . )
Enjoy and happy reading, y’all.