19 May 2009

Colson Whitehead Steals My Lunch Hour

Colson Whitehead has been stealing my lunch hour all week. His latest book, Sag Harbor, couldn't be any more frank than it already is about the life of upper middle class black teenaged boys. I usually read the New York Times for lunch, but this week I couldn't tell you if we are invading Bangladesh, or selling our nuclear warheads on EBay. Or whether President Obama has issued the Los Angeles Lakers a playoff bailout, complete with rules changes, so they can get into the NBA finals.

Since it is graduation week around my house, I was already in a nostalgic mood, reminiscing about my own graduation from high school twenty five years ago, recalling all of the pains and pleasures and promise we all had back when we stood on the cusp of the rest of our lives. Whitehead's book has reawakened subterranean memories, stirring the dust from the long forgotten details and rituals that suburban black teenagers like me practiced as if our lives depended on them.

A disclaimer here - I am an unabashed fan of Colson Whitehead, warts and all, having been seduced by the sly prose and ingenious premise of his first novel, The Intuitionist. I had to work with him a bit on John Henry Days, although I could see how he was following in the footsteps of Delillo, and to a lesser extent Pynchon, with his rambling narrative in that book. And even though I was disappointed by Apex Hides The Hurt - upset, actually, at the idea that my man had been reduced to reproducing his amazing authorial voice for literary Scooby Snacks - I have read it four or five times, mostly because it resides in a place of honor in my favorite bathroom.

So I felt a little bit like a groupie when I handed over twenty five dollars last week for a copy of Sag Harbor. I knew right away this book might be different, because when I got home, a gaggle of the Resident Diva's friends were all perched around the island in the kitchen. Not only did one of them open it up - she actually read a paragraph or so before handing it back to me with a sage nod. For high school seniors who have become allergic to anything remotely academic in these last few days before they get their diplomas, a gesture like this was unprecedented.

Why do I like what I've read so far so much? Because Whitehead has taken one of the most maligned subsets of black America - that cohort of well educated bourgeois professionals who are themselves descendants of well educated bourgeois professionals, the kind of black people who make the Obamas look like new money, they who are the mostly pale skinned and squiggly haired tribesman who coexist amongst the rest of us - and masterfully connected the lives of this bunch of beach house owning black folks to the rest of the tribe.

Never one to dwell on the physicality of his characters, he simply assumes for the most part that you know these things, and pretty much sticks to the storytelling. The other thing that keeps you in the ballgame is the way he leaves all the adults, their problems and their pettiness at the far periphery, describing them mostly through scathing anecdotes and brief asides.

The music, the lingo, the yearnings and longings are all so authentic you feel he is telling his own life story. Which he is, in a way. But to connect his fictional recollection to my life, which was about as middle of the road middle class as it got - we ate steak on Fridays, but we never had filet mignon; we had cable TV, but no premium channels; our ranch house had central heat and air, but no rec room; we owned a small lot at a South Carolina beach, but no beach house - was the hat trick that he has pulled off in spades.

My buddy's cousin, who went to college with us, was a Sag Harbor child. But to my South Carolina raised mind, which only understood the pecking order between Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head, and held a vague understanding of the social significance of Martha's Vineyard and The Hamptons, the way she would say "our house on Sag Harbor" was interpreted by my Low Country sensibilities to mean "my parents are struggling to pay two mortgages instead of one".

The people around me at lunchtime probably think I am crazy. When I'm not laughing out loud at something, I am talking to the book. "This brother broke down Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force!" The thing that is most compelling is the way Whitehead pulls no punches, none at all. His description of the peculiar teenage black middle class methodology we all used to use when we first began to string together curse words was so accurate he could have been reading my mind.

So if you've got twenty five dollars laying around, buy this book. Because there is nothing like reading the work of an author who knows how to tell a story, and knows the story he's telling.


  1. Ha...I just got the book, and I'll probably miss a little lunch too. Dag. It's all good though. Like you, I'm a Whitehead fan, so I'm sure I'll gain even as I cut the lunch break short to do the reading. By the way, I enjoyed your write-up on the novel. peace.

  2. Okay, so now I'm gonna have to track down a copy of this, you plugged it so well.


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