A few days before I flew to spend the last days of July lounging on the beaches of North Carolina this summer, I picked up Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor. Sag Harbor is a great, thought provoking read that is perfect for getting you excited to go spend a week or two on a bay or ocean beach.
At the heart of this novel is the search for an “authentic identity,” one that has always resided within the self of community but has been overlooked or concealed from the searcher. There are no more fervent or doomed searchers than teenagers, and Whitehead loops his larger commentary on identity, particularly the “paradoxical” identity of upper-middle class African American identity in the post-Jim Crow era, around two brothers: Benji and Reggie. The boys are vacationing in Sag Harbor on Long Island, NY, an erstwhile whaling community that has become a vacationing site for successful New York and New Jersey African Americans. Benji is on a mission in Sag Harbor: to reshape his identity from a nerd who is an outsider at a “predominantly white” prep school during the year to a cool, sexy, hero. He narrates his foibles and follies to hilarious and poignant effect.
Although Benji’s relentless comic asides and episodic anecdotes give SH a meandering quality, the narrator’s stories weave a narrative web as tenacious as beach-grass roots, ramifying out in all directions to gather the grains of sand and stake out a claim next to the sea. I appreciated that Benji’s “adventures,” such as they are, remain consistently mundane and realistic. There’s no great arc toward the nerd finally finding love on the beach or some apocalyptic Separate Peace confrontation between the two brothers whom the reader is introduced to as “former twins heading in opposite directions” at the start of the novel. The adventures of Benji, Reggie, and there “gang” of friends are the kinds of banal, ill-conceived, anti-climactic, exaggerated, silly kinds of antics teenagers actually get into outside of made for TV miniseries with dramatic muzak accompaniment.
Through the mode of the bildungsroman, Whitehead uses this coming of age story to probe the ways in which individual and community identity are fashioned, displayed, hidden, refashioned, abandoned, and adopted as only a fifteen year old nerd can so obsess over. The book makes the reader question how these different identities are built and torn down in one’s own life and the life of society.
While I recommend this novel unequivocally, I would recommend some of Whitehead’s other novels more ardently to readers unfamiliar with one of contemporary fiction’s finest authors. In order: 1. John Henry Days, 2. The Intuitionist, 3. Zone One.
Harbor no other beach reads until you read this book (and others by the inimitable Mr. Whitehead).
Availability: SMCM Library, USMAI and COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Shane D. Hall