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How to Be Black at the Beach

By Ron Charles
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

SAG HARBOR

By Colson Whitehead

Doubleday. 273 pp. $24.95

No one writes with more acrobatic imagination and good humor about the complexities of race in America than Colson Whitehead. In "The Intuitionist" and "John Henry Days," he evoked the nation's racial history as deftly as he created bizarre alternatives. And in his 2003 paean to his home town, "The Colossus of New York," he captured the choreography of a vibrant, multicultural city. Now he surprises us again with a charming autobiographical novel that comes honey-glazed with nostalgia. Detailing the life of a dorky teenager in a community that's peculiar but oddly familiar, "Sag Harbor" is a kind of black "Brighton Beach Memoirs," but it's spiced with the anxieties of being African American in a culture determined to dictate what that means.

Like Stephen Carter, Whitehead writes about an enclave of upper-middle-class blacks, in this case a contented but separate summer resort on Long Island. (Whenever the narrator mentions Sag Harbor to white people in New York, they say, "Oh, I didn't know black people went out there.") Straddling parts of East Hampton and Southampton, Sag Harbor is an ancient town by American standards, a whaling community that predates the Revolution (it's mentioned in "Moby-Dick"). But the 20-acre section that Whitehead celebrates was settled in the 1930s and '40s by blacks from Harlem, Brooklyn and parts of New Jersey, professional people who "had fought to make a good life for themselves, vanquished the primitives and barbarians out to kill them, keep them out, string them up, and they wanted all the spoils of their struggle. A place to go in the summer with their families. To make something new."

Readers who mistakenly imagine that authors are really describing themselves in their novels will be on firmer ground this time. "The people are made up," Whitehead has said, "but the streets and the houses are all real. My old haunts are in here." The narrator, Benji Cooper, knows that "according to the world, we were the definition of paradox: black boys with beach houses . . . but it never occurred to us that there was anything strange about it." Every year he and his carefree younger brother leave their Manhattan prep school, where they seem as exotic as the sons of an African diplomat, to spend the summer in the ranch bungalow built by their grandparents on Sag Harbor. Though the novel covers several years of boyhood adventures, it opens with the anticipation of arriving by car in June and ends in the melancholy twilight of Labor Day when the new school year beckons once again with the chance of reinvention.

An excerpt of "Sag Harbor" appeared last year in the New Yorker, and other parts seem destined for the immortality of anthologies. The novel's eight chapters are, in effect, masterful short stories, deceptively desultory as they riff on the essential quests of teenage boys: BB guns, nude beaches, beer and, above all, the elusive secret to fitting in. But plot is the least of Whitehead's concerns here. Charm alone drives most of these chapters, the seductive voice of a narrator as clever as he is self-deprecating, moving from one comic anecdote to the next with infectious delight in his own memories. "I was one of those dullards," Benji recalls, "who thought that 'Just be yourself' was the wisdom of the ages, the most calming piece of advice I had ever heard, and acted accordingly." Unfortunate references to Dungeons & Dragons and his fondness for Abba cost him dearly freshman year, but now he's determined to be cool. ("D&D had few other real-life applications, except as a means of perpetuating virginity.")

Some of the funniest passages are Benji's scientific analyses of the trappings of teenage life: the endlessly mutating handshakes that he can never master, the impossibly tortured linguistics of swearing, the fraught delineation of which music is too white to enjoy. "Keeping my eyes open" becomes his full-time job, "gathering data, more and more facts, because if I had enough information," he says, "I might know how to be. Listening and watching, taking notes for something that might one day be a diagram for an invention, a working self with moving parts." But it's so hard. "We redrew the maps feverishly," Benji remembers, "throwing out our agreements and concessions. This week surf wear was in, and we claimed Ocean Pacific T-shirts and Maui shorts as our own. Next year, Lacoste was out in enemy territory again. . . . The rules changed daily. It kept you on your toes."

Whitehead is sharpest on the plight of well-off black kids, his tone wavering between resigned sympathy and impatient mockery. "The customary schedule for good middle-class boys and girls," Benji explains, "called for them to get Militant and fashionably Afrocentric the first semester of freshman year in college. Underlining key passages in 'The Autobiography of Malcolm X' and that pass-around paperback of 'Black Skin. White Masks.' Organize a march or two to protest the lack of tenure for that controversial professor in the Department of Black Studies." Is everyone allowed to laugh at this? He treads even closer to the line when describing African Americans' efforts to skirt racial stereotypes. When picking up a watermelon at the store, for instance, he advises including some "cover purchases, as if you were buying hemorrhoid cream or something, throw some apples into the basket, a carton of milk, butter." But not all the satire here is pointed at blacks; there's a marvelous anecdote about " 'Fro-touching": "the strange compulsion [that] drives white people to touch black hair." That gentle ribbing of all sides of America's peculiar racial tension is central to Whitehead's immense appeal. Even when he deconstructs the myth of the Cosby family, his warmhearted wit suggests that we finally share enough common understanding to laugh at each other without bitterness or hatred or hard feelings.

As "Sag Harbor" moves along, its tone grows more openly melancholy, and trouble in Benji's happy-looking family sometimes shatters the comedy. But the real tragedy, the sadness of adolescence ending, is tempered by his ever-fresh, American faith in self-invention. "I could do it," Benji thinks of his future cool self. "It was going to be a great year. I was sure of it." That fragile hope may be the most irresistible quality of this wise, affectionate novel.

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