Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Colson Whitehead - 'Sag Harbor' (Harvill Secker 2009)

The fourth book by Colson Whitehead seems to be the one that'll finally break this hilarious writer out from the cult following that nurtured his flights of autobiographical fancy. Set in the titular Sag Harbor, a Hamptons for blacks in upstate New York, Whitehead introduces us to changes that ending up shaping urban culture and vomiting it out into the mainstream. Sag Harbor is a safe haven for middle class black kids. They spend their entire summers there, get to hang out with fellow African-American children and pound the streets safe from 'the streets.' They lead innocent lives and try to come to terms with the duality of their existences. For they are predominantly the only blacks in their classes and schools and thus have to partition part of themselves for school and parts of themselves for Sag Harbor. And thus it becomes a mythical, mystical, nostalgic setting for growing up. Benji, our main man, and his twin Reggie, earn money in cooking jobs, stalk the beaches for nudists and scare off any white people who try to beach themselves on their sections of the beach. For this is theirs, apart from the 'man' and away from 'whitey. Benji's a Converse-wearing, Smiths-loving, Dungeons & Dragons-playing nerd whose favorite Star Wars character is the hapless bounty hunter Greedo- out of sorts with his peers and contemporaries, who despite their lack of exposure to urban black culture are still rocking out to Afrika Bambataa and the Zulu Nation, scolding Benji when he informs them of where their samples come from (in this case, the Kraftwerk-sampling 'Planet Rock). The other boys, especially twin Reggie, seem more at ease with their sense of identity than Benji does and this pervades the rest of their 3 month unsupervised holiday in the summer of 1985. Essentially a coming of age novel, Benji's narrated story tells of his first kiss, the removal of braces, BB gun battles, slinging hip insults and deconstructing the myth of what it means to be black and what it means to be Benji. Filled with nostalgia, summery vibes, oodles of pop culture and hilarious self-deprecating narrative, 'Sag Harbor' is a warm and funny piece of literary comedy that is laidback like the summer it depicts and staunchly proud of its identity. A warmer and funnier read you won't find this summer.

No comments: