Long Island, Hot and Cool
Life as a teen in one African-American vacation spot
by Suzi Steffen
SAG HARBOR, fiction by Colson Whitehead. Doubleday, 2009. Hardcover, $24.95.
If ever there was a perfect beach read, Sag Harbor is it. True, it’s not filled with light flirtation and gossip and sex (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but Colson Whitehead’s latest novel brilliantly evokes everything about summer.
Whitehead (who’s a lot of fun to follow on Twitter, at twitter.com/colsonwhitehead, where he called this “easily his weakest effort”) has said that he waited for his fourth novel to write an autobiographical work. Sure, that’s self-deprecating; after all, what could be more traditional than a novelist writing about his or her coming of age? Yet the emotional resonance of his finely tuned prose rings all the more strongly for the precise details of Long Island in 1985. Not much happens in Sag Harbor, and everything does. Whitehead details the incredible boredom of so much time out of school, disgusting teenage jobs (no ice cream parlor will ever look the same) and the pain of being an awkward teenager surrounded by those who somehow always seem to know more and better how to move through adolescence.
Whitehead’s stand-in and protagonist, Benji, has been heading to Sag Harbor with his family every summer of his life. This year, some things are different: his younger brother, Reggie, who has been his near-twin for years, asserts his independence from Benji with heartbreakingly small but drastically important moves (getting a job at a different place; arranging his schedule to play a halfway dangerous game with BB guns when Benji doesn’t want him to). And their parents, successful African-American professionals who work in the city, rarely make it out to the family house.
Sag Harbor’s episodic nature gently threads bitter family drama through descriptions of games, summer evenings, concerts, interactions with other guys and the girls who are either somebody’s cousin or a coworker. Small details — how it feels to hold hands while skating, a low-quality paper plate, a bike with flattish tires — illuminate Benji’s life. Tone-perfect evocations of the ’80s and that decade’s music (small differences in music taste turn into large delineations of character among the teenaged black boys of Sag Harbor) will make anyone who grew up in that decade nod in recognition, but that’s only one great delight of Sag Harbor. The book includes prose passages so virtuousic they rendered this reader dumbstruck (before I read them out loud to anyone in the vicinity), and the depiction of what happens when Benji and Reggie’s parents do make it out one weekend builds relentlessly toward the small gestures, the tiny moments of violence and shame, that define Benji more than he knows. The author knows, however, and even though (or because) the Big Themes of The Intuitionist and John Henry Days retreat into (literal) background radio noise, Sag Harbor’s a book that could fit into any beach bag or on any summer reading list.
Colson Whitehead will be the MC of a lit-star-studded event at 7:30 pm Thursday, July 16, at the Newmark Theatre in Portland. The event celebrates the 10th anniversary of literary magazine Tin House and serves as a fundraiser for Literary Arts’ Writers in the Schools program. $12-$14 tix on sale at www.ticketmaster.com
Big Story, Big Screen
Nearly four years ago, EW did a cover story on Walterville’s TrineDay Books, a small publisher founded by Kris Millegan that focuses on “suppressed works that present inconvenient history.” TrineDay is still making waves: In late May, The Halcyon Company held a press conference in Spain to announce that they’d purchased the film adaptation rights to Daniel Estulin’s The True Story of the Bilderberg Group, a nonfiction TrineDay book about the annual meetings of the world’s political and business elite. Halcyon is a young, independent film company that also owns the rights to the Terminator franchise. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the Bilderberg deal includes “exclusive rights to all of Estulin’s research material as well as his two sequel books,” and the film will be a “politically neutral,” fictionalized account of Estulin’s story. In a press release, Millegan said “[Estulin’s] stories and investigations should make a gripping tale.” For more on the book and the film deal, see www.bilderbergbook.com — Molly Templeton