Sag Harbor

Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor is a high-spirited delight of a novel, a sunny surprise from Whitehead, a MacArthur Fellow who is a master of the ironic postmodern narrative. His satiric first novel, The Intuitionist, a philosophical detective story starring a black female elevator inspector, drew raves for originality as well as comparisons to Ellison, Morrison, Orwell, and Pynchon. His John Henry Days, a Pulitzer finalist and a National Book Critics Circle fiction finalist, poked fun at press junkets while asking serious questions about the “steel-driving man” behind the myth.

Whitehead’s avowedly autobiographical fourth novel is set in the fabled Hamptons. But it evokes the coming-of-age pleasures of summer anywhere — ice cream, barbecues, messing around, trying to figure out what’s cool. Whitehead dials us back to 1985 (the era of Run-D.M.C., Miami Vice, The Cosby Show, and Stouffer’s frozen dinners). He frames his story within the seasonal brackets of Memorial Day and Labor Day. As the novel begins, Benji, 15, and his younger brother, Reggie (at 10 months apart, they are almost twins), sleep in the backseat as their father hits the Long Island Expressway before dawn for the first drive to the family’s summer place in the village of Sag Harbor. When they arrive, Benji is joyous: “Same sun wrapped in shiny paper, same soft benevolent sky, same gravel road that sooner or later skinned you?. We were grateful to be standing there in that heat after such a long bleak year in the city.” Then it is time to figure out who else is out at the beach, and for how long. And so the summer colony begins to form, based in part on the vagaries of fortune (Benji hopes never to join the ranks of “Those Who Didn’t Come Out Anymore”).

Whitehead structures Benji’s summer adventure as a series of set pieces that draw specifics from the historically African-American communities in Sag Harbor. During the village’s whaling days, its Eastville section was settled primarily by black and Indian workers. Later, this area of Sag Harbor became a sort of summer retreat for members of the Harlem Renaissance. Its status as a resort was solidified in the 1940s, when Maude Terry founded Azurest, the historically African-American community of professionals, by discovering a large parcel of waterfront land for sale and subdividing it among her friends and neighbors. As one of a circle of “black boys with beach houses,” as Benji puts it, “we fit in there.”

Benji has his own spin on things, including race relations. Walking to town (“White Sag Harbor”), he avoids the corner with the pickup truck sporting a Confederate-flag bumper sticker. On the ocean beach, where he and his friends are the only black people, he sees his buddy Clive’s mix tape as “an invasion of metropolitan funk.” Noting the lifeguard’s “Shark Attack” whistle, Benji thinks it would be cool to have a Jaws moment and spot a shark fin gliding in the waves.

Benji and his brother hang out with kids they’ve spent every summer with since they were born. In this close-knit community, some of Benji’s friends are second-, even third-generation Sag Harbor babies. “We were copying our parents, who went back just as far, beating each other up thirty years ago under the same sky. Eating each other’s barbecue, chasing each other down the hacked-out footpaths to the beach before there were roads, beach houses, a community at all.”

In a chapter titled “If I Could Pay You Less, I Would,” Whitehead goes over the top with an extended riff on Benji’s first summer job at Jonni Waffle, an ice cream shop on the wharf with a “waffle-cone aroma” and absurd flavors like Cran-Mocha Praline. Benji succumbs to the “all the free ice cream he could eat” part of the deal and ends up nauseous at the end of each day. By chapter’s end, with Benji’s vision of the ultimate ice cream meltdown (“a cookie-clotted sludge oozing across the floor, marshmallows floating like broken teeth”), Whitehead has us feeling Benji’s aversion to sweets.

Next door is the disco. Whitehead mines the great pop culture moments of the 1980s in his descriptions of Bayside, which is modeled after a real-life Sag Harbor club where kids from up and down the East Coast, black and white, flocked to hear Lisa Lisa, Cult Jam, U.T.F.O , Steel Pulse, and UB40 perform, while their folks lined up to see Tina Turner and Tito Puente. Naturally, the celebrity spillover ends up at Jonni Waffle, where Benji and his underage buddies scheme to wrangle their way into the disco with ice cream. And one night, at last , Benji sails through the open doors — exuding their gusts of “Super Freak” — into the dark realm of “waitresses in nipple-popping T-shirts, battle-worn from a summer of rough duty,” and hears a U.T.F.O. concert. Looking back, Benji concludes that “Roxanne, Roxanne” is corny: “It’s a classic because of when it came out, those early days of hip-hop when anything with a bit of novelty was mesmerizing, but it’s goofy as hell.”

Some of Whitehead’s sharpest comic moments revolve around Benji and Reggie’s sibling strategies, honed over the years according to the “rough frontier justice of even Stephen.” They have such rules as “Thou Shalt Not Clean Thy Brother’s Soup Pot.” On Mondays, after their folks drive back to town, Benji and Reggie luxuriate in the freedom of having weekdays on their own. Throughout the week, they allow the dishes to pile up into a “jutting, ziggurat mess,” occasionally dealing with such smelly messes as maggots in the remnants of Sunday’s taco pan. Thursdays are reserved for misadventures — “thoroughly botched mishaps that called for shame and first aid and apologies.” That’s because on Friday, the parents return. Among their Thursday escapades is a BB gun war that leads to minor mayhem. Within a few sentences, Whitehead ranges from the lyrical (“A firefly blinked into existence, drew half a word in the air. Then gone”) to the visceral (“?something hit me in the face with a rock. Hot oil! Hot oil!”).

Benji fantasizes about the trajectory of his father’s voice when riled (“I imagined the progress of the sound waves through the air, as depicted in my Introduction to Physics textbook”), and confesses to his secret shame, listening to Sag Harbor’s Classic Oldies station WLNG (the “WLNG Effect,” he explains, is “a feeling of nostalgia for something that never existed. It creeped people out”). His perceptions are sunnily optimistic, painted with summer’s brightness and freedom. As Labor Day approaches, a frenetic quality enters the scene. To the beat of “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” — the “Black National Anthem” of the day — the Labor Day parties begin, signaling the end to the carefree months.

By summer’s end, Benji feels smarter, more together, closer to a more grown-up “Ben.” He has worked at his first job and said good-bye to braces, hello to romance. He invents a new look (starting with combat boots), thinks about new music, imagines what he’ll be able to do when he turns 16, with a major focus on girls. Gracefully, with restraint and wit, Whitehead gives us inklings of an independent, thoughtful, self-deprecating man-to-be about to emerge after this crucial summer.

Sag Harbor is an infectiously entertaining novel. Will Whitehead continue in this new, lighter comic vein? I suspect not. With its glowing and affectionate portrait of a more innocent time, Sag Harbor has the feel of lightning in a bottle.