25 July 2009

Book Review: "Sag Harbor" by Colson Whitehead

I loved this book.

I don't know if that disqualifies me from writing a review, but there was no two ways about it - I was bowled over almost from the start by the story, because for the first time in a long, long time, I read a story that spoke directly to me. I liked this book so much, I could send Colson Whitehead another twenty five dollars and it would still be a bargain.

I've read Whitehead almost from the beginning, when I came across his seminal debut novel, The Intuitionist, a racial allegory about the fictional world of elevator inspectors that combined insightful poetic lyricism with the taut pace and narrative structure of a detective thriller. His next two novels, John Henry Days and Apex Hides The Hurt, didn't really wow me, but Hemingway didn't have a hit every time out of the gate either, so I took them in stride, wondering how long it was going to take him to get back the authority of purpose he displayed in his first book.

Sag Harbor broke new ground for Whitehead, venturing into territory he'd been consciously avoiding ever since he started writing. At a reading he gave here in Atlanta after his book of essays about New York, The Colossus Of New York, came out, he stated during the question and answer session something along the lines that writers who wrote first person stories about events that paralleled their own lives risked crossing the fine line between art and personal confession.

This one was worth the risk.

Set in Sag Harbor, a small African American beach community in Long Island Sound, the book chronicles one summer in the life of Benjamin Cooper, a fifteen year old African American boy who spends the season at his family's beach house with his younger brother Reggie. Their parents, like many of the people who owned houses in Sag Harbor, were accomplished professionals who had careers to attend to back in New York City. Benjamin's mother had grown up coming to Sag Harbor in the summers herself, and the house the Coopers now owned had been inherited from her parents.

The advent of double income families meant that there were a lot of kids like Benji and Reggie in Sag Harbor for the summer who were left to fend for themselves during the week while their parents worked. The result was the formation of a society of sorts, that included a loose association of kids, mostly boys, who were unsupervised during the week. The resulting high jinks and tomfoolery that the boys engaged in were pretty much the kinds of things I would have done if I were in their shoes.

The thing that Whitehead pulled off in spades, at least to me, was the way he was able to transmit enough of the boys humanity in the first few chapters of the book to allow you to see them as more than children of privilege - "Black Boys With Beach Houses" was how he described his cast of characters early in the book. You didn't have to live this life growing up - I certainly didn't - to relate to this motley band of adolescents.

The mixture of bravado and adolescent yearning was so spot on I felt myself reliving my own youth as Whitehead took us through the social rituals and pecking order divinations of Benji and his friends. His deconstruction of the black teen aged boys penchant for stringing together long winded expletive laden phrases read like a "How To Curse" primer, one I must have memorized myself, because every one of my favorite phrases were there, laid out in all their glory, complete with a helpful diagram to show how we ended up with some of the more exotic derogatory concoctions.

Whitehead brought it all back - terry cloth sport shirts, IZOD Lacoste, the incessant cleaning of the white rubber soled sneaker with tooth brushes and Comet, the phrase "blah-zey blah" - it was all there, this and more, all of the nuances and details that let you understand the author knew what he was talking about.

I was impressed more with the turn of each page, until I got to the part where Whitehead broke down the ancestry of the beat Afrika Bambaataa used in the classic hip hop anthem "Planet Rock", tracing its origins all the way back to the song "Trans-Europe Express by Kraftwerk. I'd forgotten that the author used to be a music critic for the Village Voice way back when, before he became a fiction writer, but it wasn't just that - it was the way he wove this intimate bit of knowledge about pop music into his narrative, doing it in such a way that he taught me something new about "Planet Rock" even as he revived memories of days gone by, that sealed the deal for me.

The hilarity of the boys adventures was leavened by a foreboding undercurrent of family discord, a growing rift between Benji's mother and father that was often alluded to but never shown directly. Benji's parents were bit players, surfacing only briefly in phone conversations and flashbacks until well into the story. Their failure to appear weekend after weekend was in itself a source of rising tension, pushing Benji and Reggie out of their comfort zone and into a semblance of self reliance.

It is actually a book you can take to the beach with you, although you need to beware - if you are the kind of person who needs a big, dramatic climax, or are looking for a story that celebrates the nuances of the nuclear black family the way they used to do on those ABC After School Specials, Sag Harbor may not be the book for you. But if you've read this far, I'd live a little, and pick up a copy, even if you are only going as far as your backyard deck.


  1. Daniel Bruno Sanz would like to share his Huffington Post essay with you;
    Please post it on your website and send your link to us for inclusion at DanielBrunoSanz.com
    Follow us on Twitter at Twitter.com/DanielBrunoSanz
    Here are the keyords in the essay:
    13th Amendment, 14th Amendment, 2012 Election, B.E.T., Barack Hussein Obama, Booker T. Washington, Bryant Park, Cipriani's, Colin Powell, Criminal Industrial Complex, Deb Slott, Do The Right Thing, Heidi Klum, Hip-Hop, Mark Penn, Melting Pot, Pink Elephant, Racism, Reconstruction, Robert Johnson, Seal, Segregation, Shelby Steele, Sidney Poiter, Sonia Sotomayor, Spike Lee, Tavis Smiley, Terrence Yang, The Dance Flick, To Kill a Mocking Bird, Virginia Davies, W.E.B. Dubois, Zero Mostel, Politics
    Prologue to Obama 2012
    We approach the future walking backwards, our gaze forever fixated on the past. Predicting the future is not a passive exercise; we invent it every day with our actions.
    I began the sketches for what would ultimately become Obama 2012 in March 2007, a month after Barack Obama declared his candidacy. I had spent much of the previous 18 months living abroad as an entrepreneur and statesman of sorts, and I was slightly out of touch with the pulse of life on the street in the United States. I learnt about Sen. Barack Obama’s Springfield, IL speech formally declaring his candidacy for president of the United States through one of the international cable news channels and thought how great it would be to have a fresh start after years of mediocrity in Washington and a plummeting reputation around the world.
    By September, after what seemed like raising a six-month-old child, my sketches had turned into Why the Democrats Will Win in 2008 the Road to an Obama White House. It was my answer to the burning question everyone had back in March: Can he really win? Actually, not everyone thought it was a question. For many people, including Mark Penn, director of the Clinton campaign, the answer was an easy “no way.” This strategic blunder made it that much easier for the Clinton campaign to be defeated. Then there were Black pundits like Shelby Steele, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, who came out with a 2007 book entitled A Bound Man, Why Obama Can't Win.
    Being Black did seem to be an automatic disqualification, but then why did someone need to write an entire book arguing what should have been patently obvious? Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell came to my mind and I remembered that he could have run for president in 1992 as a war hero. But Colin Powell was Ronald Reagan’s protégé and got a special pass on the race question. Black conservatives like Justice Thomas, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell were careful to disassociate themselves from liberal thinkers and activists like Jesse Jackson, who lost, as expected, the 1984 and 1988 Democratic primaries. Ultimately, Colin Powell, in spite of all his honors, declined to run for president. His wife Alma feared for his safety. Common sense said that a candidate like Obama, for numerous insurmountable reasons, didn't stand a chance of winning the Democratic primary, let alone a general election in which 10% of the electorate is African American and Republicans controlled the White House for 20 of the preceding 28 years. But I decided that Obama's chances merited a closer examination. In it, I would bring to bear my gambling skills.

  2. LOVE your review. I couldn't have written it better myself, and the first draft of a review for my blog would be proof of that. I picked this book up (along with 4 others) about 3 weeks ago and started and finished it in a single day. It looks like I should also pick up The Intuitionist as well.

  3. On the 64th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, essayist Daniel Bruno Sanz has written a unique piece about the nuclear arms race and the Black experience on film:


    You may post it on your website and follow us at Twitter.com/DanielBrunoSanz

    Here are the Keywords:
    5ive, Adolf Hitler, African-American Poetry, Al-Queda, Albert Einstein, Arch Oboler, Carl Sagan, Charles Bronson, Charles Lampkin, Cosmos, Douglass Macarthur, Elizabeth Montgomery, Emperor Hirohito, Enrico Fermi, Fahrenhei 451, Fat Man, Five, Francois Truffaut, Frank Lloyd Wright, Genesis, Gyokuon-Hoso, H.G. Welles, Harry Truman, Hiroshima, James Anderson, James Weldon Johnson, Julius Rosenberg, Klaus Fuchs, Lavrentii Beria, Leo Szilard, Lord Of The Flies, Los Ultimos Cinco, Manchuria, Manhattan Project, Mao Tse-Tung, Martini Movies, Mokusatsu, Mulholland Highway, Nagasaki, Nietzsche, North Korea, Nuclear Holocaust, On The Beach, Orson Welles, Pearl Harbor, Potsdam Declaration, Reagan, Red Army, Rod Serling, Schopenhauer, Semipalatinsk, Stalin, Stepin Fetchit, Suzuki Kantaro, Taliban, The Day After, The Day The World Ended, Twilight Zone, Uranium Fission, Variety Magazine, Will Smith, Wille Zur Macht, William Golding, William Phipps, Living News

  4. I wound up liking the book. the parents weren't developed enough, but they weren't the point of the book - it was about the teens. i felt for the mother, but wanted to shake her in that plate confrontation. the point about the sister was deeper than a notion, and he just let it be, which is sort of how things are in real life. the young man has to process things over time. I did like the book, and how the ending was sort of unsatisfying and not all neat.

  5. New essay "The Gates Affair:Why We Care" yours to publish
    Dear readers and webmasters,

    Author Daniel Bruno Sanz has written an essay about Gatesgate.  We encourage its publication and distribution.
                                                              Navas S.
    "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."
    - 4th Amendment to the The Constitution of the United States of America

  6. Hey blog master remove those comments from the same person Daniel Bruno Sanz he is a racist and a fraud. For him to try and get P.R. without addressing the book you are speaking of is not only rude but shows jealousy big time. His book is worthless.

  7. Just read this novel, thanks for your great review. I was okay with the lack of a traditional plot; the great writing and the wealth of well-caught detail kept me amazed. The BB under his eye stayed with me too. I just read each chapter like its own self-contained short story/essay.

  8. Very grateful to the author to write this article.
    It makes a lot of things I learned.


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