The Short Version: It’s summer 1985 and Benji Cooper is headed to Sag Harbor for the summer. And what a summer it will be: time to hang with friends, make mistakes, and maybe get ready for sophomore year of high school…
The Review: Ah, summertime.
Wait, let me amend: ah, teenage summertime. That magical stretch of time between early June and Labor Day weekend when any and everything is possible and, if you’re lucky, you don’t have much to do beyond hanging around and maybe making some pocket change at some ridiculous minimum wage job. Your days and nights, largely, belong to you and to you alone – or, well, to the collective you-and-you-alone of you and your compatriots.
Summers don’t feel like that anymore. Not even in college do they retain that same sense of potential energy that they held as you hit high school. Summer meant you might get kissed, you might find a new thing that could redefine your persona, you could have adventures under nobody’s watch but your own. Now, it just means jobs and heat and a hope that someday you’ll have enough to go on a proper vacation or maybe even reclaim, in your later years, that sense of freedom…
In the meantime, though, we have novels like Sag Harbor wherein Colson Whitehead, one of the funniest and best wordslingers we’ve got working today, delivers a slightly-autobiographical summer tale wherein nothing much really happens but also proves to be a defining summer in a young man’s life – as they all are, at that age. It’s set out in (you guessed it) Sag Harbor, where there was (not so much anymore, although still to some extent) an enclave of upper-middle-class black families – where Whitehead summered as a kid and Benji, our main character, has some elements of Whitehead to him. It’s not autobiography, as he’s made plain in plenty of interviews, although he also admits to there being plenty of real things in the story (even if they’re changed around here and there). But we get a sense of being 15 in 1985 in Sag Harbor from someone who was there and I think the thing that astonished me the most is how little being 15 has changed from then to now.
I don’t mean in the most literal sense – 15 year olds will be 15 year olds from now until the end of time, doing stupid shit like shooting BB guns at each other and sneaking beers behind their parents’ backs – but rather in the eerie echoes of 1985 that we’ve seen in the last year and a half. As Benji and his family ride out from Manhattan, Whitehead writes
The playlist of the city in those days was headline after headline of outrage, in constant rotation were bloody images of Michael Stewart choked to death by cops, Grandma Eleanor Bumpers shot to death by cops, Yusef Hawkins shot to death by racist thugs.
Makes you wonder if some young someday novelist was riding out to Sag Harbor with his parents this summer, hearing the same old stories with new names.
And suddenly, Whitehead’s relatively simple novel of a teenage boy’s summer itself matures into an observatory note: that things are still the same. In some ways, like the aforementioned quote and like the threat of a father’s brutality that ghosts around the novel, this is a bad thing. Things shouldn’t be like that thirty years down the line. But on the other hand, kids are still posturing and posing, still focused much more on being the coolest of their friends and/or getting the girl/guy than they are on the larger, scarier troubles of the world.
To which I say “thank goodness.”
Whitehead is a funny writer, as anyone who has read any of his other work will know. And his humor is in fine form here, although it doesn’t bite as hard as it does in something like The Noble Hustle. Still, lines like “Now it served a different trade – tourism and leisure, although given national statistics on obesity, blubber still had its niche” should rightly elicit a bark of laughter and even the less one-liner, more situation-based humor will get you smiling throughout. But I found that there was a real sense of nostalgia here, making even the funniest moments a little sepia-toned. This felt cemented in the second-to-last chapter, where Benjy finally makes his move with a girl – but he’s caught up the whole time, thinking about it and thinking about his past and a song that he’s heard… there’s a whole digression that’s just beautiful and you can see the modern day Benjy and the 15-year-old Benjy reaching out across the river of time to blend briefly into being the same person. It’s predictable plotting, perhaps, but Whitehead brings some real heft to even a somewhat clichéd moment and it elevates what could’ve just been a fun summer romp into something more touching and, perhaps, longer-lasting.
Rating: 4 out of 5. A view to history is not what Whitehead appears to be aiming for with this book. Instead, this is a story of young men being, well, young men. Any 30-years-later resonance that comes with reading the book today, well, that’s because of today. It’s good to know that the struggles of today’s teens feel like the struggles of teens back then – and it’s not-so-good to know that the broader struggles of society are still pretty much the same. But if things do stay the same, that means that summers will always be a refuge for kids and a time to worry about nothing other than figuring themselves out. And when authors like Whitehead tell those stories, well, I can think of no greater way to spend a hot summer weekend than kicking back and cracking the covers.