By Colson Whitehead
Doubleday, 273 pp., $24.95
On this past January’s third Tuesday, Barack H. Obama was sworn in as president of the United States. On its fourth Tuesday, John H. Updike died at the age of 76.
I have no doubt the old man savored the gravity and relief of life in that first and final septimana mirabilis in our transformed republic—which is why it’s with no minor trepidation that I point to a review he wrote for the May 7, 2001, issue of The New Yorker.
Updike began, “The young African-American writer to watch may well be a thirty-one-year-old Harvard graduate with the vivid name of Colson Whitehead.” The piece proceeded, in this opening paragraph (and the next), to steam-shovel praise on The Intuitionist, Mr. Whitehead’s “strikingly original and polished début.”
Regular readers (and writers) of upper-middlebrow Anglophone criticism can guess what happens next: With his admiration duly noted, Updike pivots from The Intuitionist to John Henry Days, the actual topic at hand and a follow-up novel that we learn disappoints in the manner congenital to ambitious sophomores—it’s “longer and more various, and also slacker and more diffuse” than its predecessor, with Mr. Whitehead’s “hip wit sit[ing] on the narrative less as delicious icing than as a nervous burden.”
Updike would seem to bend the narrative arc of his essay to a familiar, lesson-learned take-away: To wit, Colson Whitehead will remain a writer to watch (and presumably just as African-American, if less young), so long as John Henry Days chastens him into a tighter discipline over his as-yet-uneven talent. And Updike indeed says more or less all that in his conclusion, but also something else that snapped back this reader’s neck, or at least his pupils, in double take. After noting the odd inconsequence of J. Sutter, the young, black, journalist-for-hire protagonist of John Henry Days—inconsequence, that is, compared to the folk hero of the title, and “the prophetic thunders and righteous wrath of Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Du Bois and Richard Wright and James Baldwin”—Rabbit Angstrom’s creator musingly questions the literary import of ordinary lives: “As assimilation and integration achieve their dilutions and ironies, what remains worth fighting for? How does a black man save his soul? Fortunate black citizens are now privileged to share the moral inconsequence of the entire society; this is progress of a sort, but not necessarily aesthetic progress.”
Three months after Updike’s, another review of John Henry Days appeared, written by James Wood. In the pages of The New Republic, Mr. Wood introduced Mr. Whitehead’s novel as the “African American version” of Don DeLillo’s Underworld. After the perfunctory (and, of course, dexterously lovely) avowals of the author’s “talent,” the review moved to a discussion of language, whereupon Mr. Wood’s close reading calibrated its microscope focus, remarkably, on Mr. Whitehead’s (lack of) command of standard English. “Whitehead writes what might best be called interesting prose—extraordinarily uneven, and sometimes barely comprehensible, not to mention smutted with inexplicable solecisms. … Errors are corrigible, and certainly forgivable; but error is sewn deep into the prose here, and is not easily unpicked.”
Here, Mr. Wood—who, contra Updike, hardly acknowledges the extra-textual problems, or existence, of race—occasioned a physiological response that only begins in the neck. It’s not the issue he takes with John Henry Days’ colloquialisms that elicits cringing; it’s the recurring assumption that Mr. Whitehead is not a stylist making choices when he alofts on flights of the ungrammatical (“that little song that always works isn’t today”), but rather simply doesn’t know better.
The young Presbyterian-American writer to watch, imagining there can only be one, would not exactly be watched like this.
AS IT HAPPENS, John Henry Days, a 2002 Pulitzer Prize finalist, does tack, as both critics say, toward the overwritten, and –wrought, and –long. But in framing these critiques, their reviews ratified the novel’s core social and psychological insight: namely, that the persistence of racial identity in 21st-century America is most directly experienced in, and against, its absence.
Mr. Whitehead’s fiction is thus paradigmatically “racial” only insofar as it suspends, dispends and upends static racial markers. Updike came close to seeing the game in 2001, noting that “the disgusted junketeer J. Sutter, need not be black at all. His discontent might just as well be that of a young white or Asian-American of literary bent.” (True enough.) But the recognition quickly becomes lament: For reasons noble and otherwise, it seems the lion simply could not bring himself to accept a gifted black writer uninterested in claiming the righteous mantel, the thunderous birthright, of Douglas, Du Bois, Wright and Baldwin.
Would that it were possible for him to read Sag Harbor! Deceptively modest and extraordinarily assured, Mr. Whitehead’s new novel, set in 1985, recounts three months in the life of 15-year-old Benji Cooper. A wry and circumspect narrator, Benji is surrounded by a phalanx of other black boys—and a small advance squadron of girls—variably initiated into the worlds of cars, sex, politics and beer. With little visible strain, he re-creates the gaseous specificity that fills whatever space teenage boredom allows it: Benji and his friends close-read rap lyrics, practice streetwise handshakes (“Slam, grip, flutter, snap. Or was it slam, flutter, grip, snap?”) and improvise hilariously baroque takedowns (“You fuckin’ Kunta Kinte-lookin’ motherfucker … with your monkey ass.”). The first hairlines of adult fissures appear: Once inseparable, Benji separates from his brother Reggie; less centrally, a boy named Bobby becomes the group’s first militant, developing “a fondness for using the phrases ‘white-identified’ and ‘false consciousness’ while watching The Cosby Show.”
But let’s be clear: Sag Harbor is a book about summering in the Hamptons.
Sag Harbor is also the first novel Mr. Whitehead has written explicitly based on his own life. Like Benji, he was 15 in the summer of 1985, and spent the season with his brother at their family’s house in Azurest, a black enclave in Sag Harbor developed in the 1940s for the Negro elite. The parents in Sag Harbor are judges, lawyers, doctors and schoolteachers—they generally come out on summer weekends, leaving their teenagers blissfully unsupervised with televisions, BB guns, and part-time jobs from Monday to Thursday.
Benji is, like untold American protagonists of the last decade, a supremely gawky example of comic-book boyhood. He wears braces, has never kissed—much less dated—a girl and, in a particularly winsome chapter, categorizes the world based on Dungeons and Dragons attributes. That he’s also black merely compounds the embarrassment: His friends lambast him for preferring Kraftwerk to Afrika Bambaataa; his physician father thinks he “look like one of those corner niggers” after a new haircut. Yet for all this high-resolution imagery, one suspects Mr. Whitehead is significantly less comfortable with the marketplace dictates of autobiography than the average sad young literary novelist. Indeed, if full-bore memoirist fiction is about excavating, and finally pathologizing, one’s life, the hyphenated writer ever risks pathologizing his group in the process.
As if expressly avoiding such ethnography, Sag Harbor treads lightly, perhaps too lightly. Conflict that would elsewhere mature into crisis—in particular, the apparent abusiveness, alcoholism and racial self-righteousness of Benji’s father—here emerge and just as quickly recede with the tide. But if Mr. Whitehead’s taciturnity sometimes obscures, it also exposes, through second-order demonstration rather than explicit description, the defining prudence and self-possession of the community at Azurest. As narrator and character—and child of this black foothold on a white mountain—Benji’s guardedness makes sense. The result is a pleasing respite from the literary mainstream, high and low—Sag Harbor is the beach read for those of us who are dubious, whether by shade of skin or content of character, about the powers of confessional.
IN A PERFECT WORLD, a formalist like Mr. Wood might begin to recognize the aesthetic rigor in Mr. Whitehead’s little book, the tightly controlled ebb and flow between Benji’s voice at 15 and that of his adult counterpart, even if it’s best noticed in the narration’s shifting orientation toward particular Bands (the Smiths), Brands (Kangol) and Products (New Coke). The recourse to popular culture is not always, as it seems, an appeal to lowest-common-denominator totems. This reader, for one, grinned knowingly at the underage boys’ attempt to crash a U.T.F.O.–Lisa Lisa concert, the big show of the season. The period details feel like quick-and-dirty emotional shorthand, an evocation of shared kitsch history. But a half-step back revealed the immediate identification to be a matter of good writing, not the opportune citing of familiar names.
Which is to say, the reign of Lisa Lisa was not personally familiar at all. (I was born in 1985.)
More irrevocably alien is the Azurest milieu itself. As the adult-voiced Benji points out more than once, 1985 was a prelapsarian time, when Barack Obama was unthinkable, but middle-class professionals, white, black or otherwise, could imagine making good and earning a season a year on the East End, out of the city (which then meant Manhattan). An unlikely literary hub, the village of Sag Harbor appears in Moby-Dick and has counted Steinbeck, Capote, James Fenimore Cooper and Langston Hughes among its residents. But as the town has prospered in the past 20 years, Colson Whitehead’s generation might just be the end of the line: the last writers who can afford to summer there, or anywhere, or to think of seasons and vacations and houses at all.
Jonathan Liu is a frequent contributor to The Observer. He can be reached at email@example.com
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