I’m sorry for doubting you. I was going to write this apology/review in a series of 140 character paragraphs (ala tweet) but that’s too much of a pain in the ass and would do your beautiful book, Sag Harbor, a great disservice. It deserves better.
I’m sorry for wondering about the story-ness of your story. I was getting scared. From the beginning you set up a certain kind of story, the summer Benji and Reggie went to Sag Harbor and were the kids in the empty house, out for the summer while their parents toiled away in the city, only visiting on weekends.
You set up a story where Benji and Reggie, a mere eleven months apart in age, were beginning to sever the Benji-Reggie two-headed beast, and you set up that story so beautifully, it took my breath away. I loved how you explained their bond:
Joined not at the hip or spleen or nervous system but at the more important place — that spot on your self where you meet the world. (3)
So, I thought I was getting a certain kind of book — the summer of 1985 when 15-year-old Benji came of age on his own, away from Reggie. I was all, hot damn this is going to be good. But then I was inundated with the 80s pop culture trivia — New Coke and boomboxes and mix tapes and Bauhaus and The Cosby Show. While that was all well-written and mildly amusing, it wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard on VH-1’s “We Love the 80s.”
Because your writing was so beautiful and the cast of characters, Benji’s Sag Harbor posse, so engaging (especially the part about how they constructed the insults), I stuck with you. I’m glad I did. I loved reading about the history of this black, beachside community next to the Hamptons. I loved how the teen-aged boys wiled away their summer looking for girls and getting into the stupid trouble kids get into when they have too much time on their hands.
But most of all, I loved the story that was there, subtle and tragic in the way that real life is. After I finished reading the book I looked up some reviews and all of them mention how this is a novel that’s not about much. I beg to differ, it’s about a lot. It’s about being black and privileged and how that is weird, because our country doesn’t know how to handle that. It’s about alcoholics and family dysfunction.
This was how my mother disappeared, word by word. She got older by the second, that magical Sag Harbor effect fading. Something happened to my mother in her life that she never defended or protected herself. That she never defended or protected us, when it was our turn. I don’t know what it was. I suppose it was the same thing that prevented me from defending and protecting her, once I was old enough. I kept my mouth shut and watched TV. (190)
It’s about about wanting and not getting and keeping your mouth shut.
I wasn’t offended. I had my own scheme, and even though it cycled between doom and sure thing every five minutes, I was going to execute it. I wanted in. But to say it was to kill it, to express a want out loud was to be slapped back down. I kept my mouth shut. (210)
And it’s about trying to figure out what it all means and almost, but not quite, understanding it.
I could’ve made up my own lyrics to what passed between the father and the son, something about misunderstandings, the ones that don’t matter and the ones that are everything, but I would’ve gotten the words wrong. Make up lyrics to someone else’s song and you put yourself in there, botching it all. (222)
But most of all, I think it is a coming of age story. The real kind. Writers and readers of literature like to think coming of age stories happen all at once. One day, one night, one hour, one event — that time the scales fell from our eyes and we could truly see for the first time. But that’s not how actual people come of age. We come of age in bits and pieces — when we get our braces off, or touch a breast for the first time, when we realize we can leave after Dad’s had too much to drink.
Thank you @colsonwhitehead for the beautiful book.
Dag, I was wrong with my doubting ass.