Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Growing up

The summer after 10th grade, I started keeping a list of the books I read for fun. This list wound up spanning several sheets of tiny-scrawl paper until I moved house last summer. At that point, I began to maintain it in a draft on my gmail (an aesthetic failure of the highest order, I am aware). The first item on my draftlist, dated 7/24/09, is a reread of M.E. Kerr's "Hello," I Lied, a book which fills me with vague nostalgia for its East Hampton locale, a place where I spent many a summer, including the one when I began the book list.

This year on the 24th (and slightly beyond), I found myself reading another piece of Hamptons literature (which I must confess I had been saving for the summer for some time), Colson Whitehead's Sag Harbor. And I can be less equivocal than usual and say that I loved this book. Ostensibly a novel, it's more like a set of short stories (and, one suspects, like an autobiography) charting the experiences of 15-year-old Benji ("Ben," he pleads, without much success), spending a bittersweet summer in the title town in 1985. Benji's situation is a bit different from the stereotypical Hamptons experience you might imagine, primarily because, in addition to being pretty well-off financially, his family is black. During the rest of the year, Benji goes to prep school with the rest of mostly-white moneyed New York; in the summer, he connects some more with the black part of his identity, as he goes back to the town where his family and their friends have summered for generations. Benji, who's narrating from an age-undisclosed but clearly older vantage point, frequently evokes DuBois's idea of "double consciousness," where African-Americans experience a conflict between the two parts of their identity. Add this tension to the teenager's general anxiety about where he fits in, and you get a wince-and-twinge-inducing, ruefully hilarious look at one summer. And, as the author puts it in an interview (which I merely summarize here), at the start of a summer, we all expect ourselves to change in fabulous ways; by the end, we've maybe changed .01 percent.

But charting even that .01 percent with Benji is a worthwhile experience, as we look at his family, his summer job, his friends, his (lack of) success with parties and with girls. (In one of the funny/sad scenes that I think are the novel's trademark, he suddenly fits in with a new group of cool friends...only to flee their party in ignominy after trying to stock up on a six-pack of (unbeknownst to him, only temporarily) discontinued Coke from the host's secret stash.) Benji's voice is sharp and clean, informal and poetic, rueful and comical all at the same time. I wish he could be the tourguide to my life.

In addition to its own merits (which I bet you can tell I think are legion), Sag Harbor is also intriguing when I consider it in conjunction with (my earlier-reviewed) Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude. The two share narrators who, in addition to their naturally introverted and unsure natures, come from the weird side of the tracks (hippie-gentrifier Dylan and preppy black Benji), which gives them unusual perspectives on the larger issues of race and history and grown-up relations that surround them. Both authors convey this surreal state of affairs with a by turns observant, casual, curt, flowery, bitter, knowing, beautifully descriptive, I could go on here forever... kind of voice that I've never read anywhere else. These books are novels, of course, in the stories they tell. But they are also poetry. Words are chosen for their sounds as well as their meanings; whole sections of the book adopt different tones to convey the events and emotions of the characters. Read these! I want to tell everyone, brandishing a copy for each hand. This is what a book should be. These real characters, these real places. I know people like them, and I have walked the school-threatening and summer-aimless streets they portray. Maybe you don't, and maybe you haven't, but it doesn't matter. Start reading, and you will.

I should note that there's at least one key difference between these two books, and you'll probably have realized what it is. Whereas Lethem looks at a biiiiig swath of history with his biiiiig novel, Whitehead presents a sharply-etched snapshot of a more particular moment in time. And so, if you're like I once was and you can't bear Fortress with its impenetrable density, pad down to the beach and sit a while with Sag Harbor. Its merits of cultural, place, and character description are as great, if not more so, as those of its epic counterpart.

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