what i'm reading: sag harbor by colson whitehead

Colson Whitehead is now officially one of my Favourite Writers. I last gushed about him here, after reading his excellent novel Apex Hides the Hurt. That post also contains links to earlier raves, especially about Whitehead's New York City essays.

Over my reading week, I read (for myself! hurrah) Sag Harbor, Whitehead's novel from 2009. It's a coming-of-age story, narrated by a teenage boy during a summer in Sag Harbor, Long Island, a historically black beach community, where middle-class African American families from the New York City area have taken their families for generations. I absolutely loved this book.

First, the teenage voice is as true as they come. Whitehead has such a light touch - the writing is very funny, and touching and sweet, but never cloying or anguished or self-aggrandizing. You feel for Benji, and your heart squeezes in recognition of his perpetually self-torturing teenage mind, but you know he'll be all right.

Then, within the coming-of-age form, Whitehead weaves layers of meaning, somehow without ever being overly obvious or preachy. So Sag Harbor is also about black self-consciousness, and the pigeon-holes black people are placed in by white society, the different "ways to be black," (street, Cosby Show, striver, and so on). And these pigeonholes run parallel to the cliques and labels of adolescence (nerd, jock, rocker, and so on). This parallel, between the black experience and the teen experience, universalizes the black experience in a way, gives the (potentially not-black) reader a point of identification.

Sag Harbor is, at bottom, about our invention of ourselves - the false nostalgia for our imagined carefree childhood years (which really weren't) and our imagined future when we will finally break free. In the background of Benji's story, there are family issues, maybe even the breakup of the family, but these are told with the same light, humourous touch, so you're laughing and shaking your head at things that aren't really funny, because you know it's no worse than what we've all survived.

Here's an excerpt.
Needless to say, I had no idea how fucked up the haircuts were at the time. To us they were normal. Just how things were done in our house. (Raise your hand if you relate.) My delusions ended that spring when I was cleaning out my desk during one of my periodic purges of nerdery. My twenty-sided die possessed a curious will, returning to pester and trouble me even though I had thrown it out a hundred times, the specter of D&D games past. This time I threw it out the window. (I found it under the radiator a week later.) I stashed dog-eared copies of Famous Monsters in a box at the back of the closet and hid all the comic books I'd bought since the last purge, in case a girl materialized in my room due to a transporter malfunction. I was in a good mood or something, feeling optimistic, like someone had chuckled at a joke that I'd made in Biology, or History, and it had gone to my head.

I came across a packet of fifth-grade class pictures under my copy of Swamp Thing #35. It is the nettlesome quality of elementary-school pictures to reveal the true nature of our childhoods. Nothing is how we remember it, and all the necessary alterations we've made in order to survive with semi-functioning psyches are exposed. Best to leave them alone.

Looking back, I think I had what is best described as a prelapsarian fondness for fifth grade, its lack of complication. No more. Miss Fredericks, the Social Studies teacher whose cruel smile had haunted me for years and who was actually the default setting in my nightmares when I needed an evil authority figure, had a melancholy face now that I really examined it. She seemed a bit too skinny, almost ill, and I got to thinking about what her house looked like, picturing the shadows in the kitchenette where she prepared her lonely meals. Two scoops of cottage cheese on a big leaf of wilted iceberg lettuce, and a side of misery. She never appeared in my dreams again.

Scanning the rest of the photograph, it was clear that none of us, teacher and pupils alike, had remained untouched by that horrible epidemic making the rounds back then, '70s fashion, the manic stripes and prints of the shirts and skirts and pants a kind of rash on our flesh that only a new decade could cure. Then there were the kids themselves. No one looked like they were supposed to. These changeling creatures surrounded me in polyester, touching my elbows. Strangers. I traced a finger along their faces like a movie amnesiac ... that must be my best friend ... his name is Andy ... that's the smart girl who sat in front of me all year ... she ate frankfurters out of a Bionic Woman thermos filled with hot oily water. Then there was my own face. My face was not the one I remembered showing to the world. Were my eyes so dark, those days? There was something amiss with my mouth, always my mouth, even before I got braces. My lips were chapped, sure, but the chappiness seemed to have extended its territory, so that a huge white halo encircled my mouth, like I'd been eating ashes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And then there was that thing on top. That really fucked-up haircut.

I recovered from the class picture pretty quickly. It wasn't that bad. Seeing the white letters identifying my homeroom, the construction-paper map of France we'd toiled over that winter, the poster of Neil Armstrong floating down to the lunar surface, I felt a nice warm tingle of nostalgia. The killer was the four panes of wallet-sized photos beneath the class picture. It was just me there. They should have stopped me. They should have stopped me at any number of checkpoints. As I tried to leave the apartment - here, a close relative would have been key. The doorman could have taken me aside. We got along, him and me, trading heys with enthusiasm, or so I thought. But he said nothing. Certainly the bus driver, de facto deputy of the body politic, could've forbid me entry, ripping my bus pass in half and tossing it to the dirty black treads. The security guard outside school should have beat me with his flashlight, and surely my homeroom teacher, Miss Barrett — stickler by nature, wielder of a bifocaled annihilating gaze — should have shoved her big wooden desk up against the classroom door, back brace or no back brace. All of them should have said, What the fuck is up with your hair?

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