Book Review - Colson Whitehead sees things in noir and white

The MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius’ considers coming of age with Sag Harbor

Somewhere near the end of Colson Whitehead’s first novel, The Intuitionist, the first black female inspector of elevators sits on a stakeout in an unnamed city in the not-so-distant but indistinct past. It’s one of the book’s many metafictional moments, where the tropes of pulpy crime fiction are used to express larger themes of race and racism. As she holds watch and notes the noir-ish sight of a man in a red cap leaning against a lamppost, a stick-ball game breaks out in the middle of the street. It’s as if the Pynchonesque machinations of allegory and genre-bending are no match for “Ten screaming kids, half a broom, a stained canvas ball.” The kids are a quick reminder that Whitehead’s story takes place in a real world where the childish taunts of “You’re mama’s so black she, you throw like a girl, nuh-uh he didn’t tag me I got there first” can’t be drowned out, and “The stickball game disappears as fast as it came.”

It’s been a full 10 years since Whitehead published his debut, and the intervening decade has been full of successes. His second novel, John Henry Days, was shortlisted for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize. The following year he received the MacArthur Foundation’s Genius Grant at the age of 33. His fifth novel, Sag Harbor, was published earlier this year to mostly glowing reviews, despite being a major departure from his style and approach.

Whitehead has written some about the connection he feels with writers such as Jonathan Lethem and Victor LaValle, other native New Yorkers whose literary work self-consciously appropriates the genre fiction they’ve admitted to loving in adolescence. But Sag Harbor isn’t too concerned with reflexively commenting on the genre in which it’s working. It’s a coming-of-age story about a black teenager from New York who likes horror movies and Dungeons and Dragons. In Whitehead’s words, the story’s “more personal and modest.”

Coming-of-age novels rarely toy with established form. They inevitably begin somewhere in the mire of adolescence and end in a place closer to the ether of adulthood. Working within this fairly uniform framework, Whitehead focuses on evoking the distinct cultural and social milieu of early ’80s New York. Benji, the narrator and a character not unlike Whitehead himself, is an admittedly geeky teenager who attends a mostly white Manhattan prep school and spends the summers in an African-American enclave of the Hamptons.

He’s sealed his reputation as a dork, he says, by talking about the wrong things. “Mentioning D&D, you might as well fart while playing seven minutes in heaven, not that I’d ever played seven minutes in heaven, but I had spent some time thinking about it and it had occurred to me that farting was something you shouldn’t do, if the occasion arose.” He’s a smart kid, though inclined to obsess in an odd, if entertaining, way. He recounts “the great coca-cola robbery” (the temporary switch to New Coke) as if he were recalling the events of the Kennedy assassination.

Over the course of a summer vacation in Sag Harbor, Benji discovers his reputation didn’t follow him from school. Life takes a turn for the better when his braces come off and a girl returns his affections. He waxes on about zombies from the behind the counter of his ice cream shop job. As Labor Day signals the season’s passing, his group of friends are jamming “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” on repeat — “The Black National Anthem,” he calls it. Finally, Benji seems to have reconciled his place among the bar mitzvahs of his private school and the “Iconic Figures of Black Nationalism” his father keeps talking about.

Though Whitehead’s first novels were stirring, nearly spilling over with ideas, Sag Harbor’s content to bat around a few modest notions of racial and class identity. The novel takes place during a curious moment in history, when “post-racial” notions were just beginning to emerge. As a black teenager at an almost all-white school who spends his summers in an almost all-black vacation town, Benji’s ripe for identity struggles. It isn’t a surprise that he possesses a stronger sense of self by the novel’s end, but it’s a funny and sad trip along the way.

Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead. Doubleday. $24.95. 273 pp.