I’m just going to say it: I think Colson Whitehead’s novel, Sag Harbor, is perfect.
Does that make for an interesting post? No–I guess it will be more like a commercial:
Buy this book! Take it out of the library! Borrow it!
Having been unable to get into The Intuitionist, I used to find it hard to justify why I still really liked Colson Whitehead; I just did. Now, I realize I was completely justified because he had this book in him. Sag Harbor is really special. It is the story of fifteen year old Benji (Ben, as he longs to be called), during the summer of 1985, hanging out with his ex-twin brother, Reggie, and their friends in the affluent black vacation enclave of Sag Harbor. He and Reggie were born less than a year apart and until their mid-teenagerhood, when ten months suddenly matter, had essentially been twins. As they diverge, Benji is forced to become his own person, which he does over the course of the book, struggling through his first job–scooping ice cream, his first make-out session–he touched her boob over her shirt, his first experience surviving without his parents, who join the boys in Sag only on the weekend, and many hilarious, poignant exploits with his friends, the most memorable of whom is called NP, for “Nigger Please.”
Sag Harbor is about emmersion; the reader is given the time and space to enjoy every fully-realized scene in a very specific world, through the eyes of a very specific narrator. At one point, we are given a chart to follow explaining the format of the boys’ insults: modifier-‘in verb-object+monkey ass (ex. “You fuckin’ Kunta Kinte-lookin’ motherfucker…with your monkey ass.”) Being let in on the joke makes the reader an accomplice; when it appears for the final time in the last pages, the effect is truly satisfying–I actually felt smug reading it.
The elaborate, in-depth, hyper-considered music references in Sag Harbor are something to recommend the book all on their own. I was just entering kindergarten in 1985 so the music is not that of my childhood, but perhaps because I am surrounded, in my everyday life, by people who grew up during the time period–my boyfriend Dan, specifically–I was thrilled by every mention. When Benji rhapsodizes about Kraftwerk, Afrikaa Bombata and why it’s okay to like both, I was squirming with anticipation until I got Dan captive and was able to read him the chapter aloud.
Because nothing “big” happens in Sag Harbor–no one dies, gets hurt, gets caught, falls in love–these small moments are allowed to become, for the reader, the momentous future-nostalgic signposts they will be for Benji. As the novel winds down in the last couple pages, even though he’s still in the moment, Benji is already reminiscing, capturing the exact end-of-something feeling that punctuates childhood summers.