Book: Sag Harbor
Author: Colson Whitehead
Genre: Literary summer reading.
Basics: 1985, Hamptons, African American community, boys run amok
Soundtrack: Balance by Future Islands / Ain’t No Stopping Us Now by McFadden and Whitehead
My theory on hitchhiking: if you have hitchhiked, you are infinitely more likely to pick up hitchhikers.
I just finished reading Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead. It’s a summer book. Set in 1985. It’s not what we call a “beach read”– it’s too dense in language for that, too weighted down by that “PEN/FAULKNER AWARD FINALIST” sticker on its cover– but it’s a summer book. It’s steeped in the possibility of those three months when anything could happen, when you have the space to dream up schemes of how to become someone who is exactly unlike you by September. But mostly you’re lazy and are more yourself than ever, because nobody is watching:“We didn’t change all that much year to year, we just became more of ourselves. Where were we the next summer? A few inches closer to it.” 84
A warning: it took me a while to get into this book. Whitehead’s narrator tells the story from a distance, allowing him to layer analysis upon reflection: what he thought of it then, what he thinks of it now. He starts and stops and rewinds to fill you in on some other things you might or might not need to know before he keeps going. It keeps you at a distance, keeps you circling– and then he stops, and tells you what he’s been trying to say, and it’s a good sentence.“Summers we brawled. We were hungry for slight, for provocations big and small, and when one didn’t appear, we trumped up charges. Turf. The more whole you were, the more turf you had. You could tolerate the occasional trespass. But if you had so little turf that you felt like you barely had any air? You told someone they had crossed a line they didn’t know existed. Then you punched them in the face.” 164
“That tart first sip, preferably with ice knocking against the lips for an added sensory flourish, that stunned the brain into total recall of pleasure, of all the Cokes consumed before and all those impending Cokes, the long line of satisfaction underpinning a life.” 126
It’s worth getting into, though. Summer. Lazy and frantic all the time. Especially somewhere like here, about as far as the Hamptons as you can get, here where the weather cannot be counted on and we read a lot of books.“Over time I have learned that what makes a man is not his ideas or his words, what makes a man is the ability to squeeze out a ferocious stream of lighter fluid from a can and throw a match on it. Mr. Nickerson was a man. The heat felt good.” 321