I have a special affection for Colson Whitehead, having followed his career from The Intuitionist (which still lingers in my mind whenever I see an Otis elevator), through the less enjoyable John Henry Days and The Colossus of New York, and on the upward swing of quality, Apex Hides the Hurt. Sag Harbor continues the upward trend, on par with the Intuitionist.
I was rightfully challenged to articulate exactly what it is about authors that I enjoy. For Whitehead, I enjoy his smart and witty use of juxtapositions, things like “I did stupid things very carefully” or jumping quickly to fight someone but taking the time to put the bike kickstand down, or being into Malcolm X as a hobby until business school rolls around.
The story of Sag Harbor is part coming-of-age, part black vs. white, part pop-culture catalog of the 1980s. Ben(ji) and his brother Reggie have been coming out to Sag Harbor all their summers, the black section of the Hamptons where professionals from the city escape each year to create a community and reforge bonds that disappear during the nine months of city time. Benji’s parents come out on weekends and leave the boys to their own devices, leaving them to frozen dinners and cans of soup. Finally Benji takes a job at the ice cream shop to earn food and entertainment money. Reggie similarly crews at Burger King.
Whitehead writes the family with a certain closeness yet distance; the sister Elena who is spotted in a parking lot, not telling the family she’s back in town for the weekend. Reggie and Benji used to be “twins” since being together so much, but this summer they’ve gone their separate ways. The father always teetering on the brink of anger, one flipped paper plate crammed too high with BBQ ready to send him off into orbit; Benji tiptoes around him all summer.
It was the heyday of dag. Dag was bitter acknowledgment of the brutish machinery of the world. It was a glimpse into the cruel void, as evidenced by the fact that it was often followed by “That was cold.” In the heyday of dag, we accepted our duty to call attention to such moments, taking turns at this minor masochism. It passed the time.
Dag is then sprinkled through the rest of the book, as punctuation to events. “Everybody murmured dag, in their disparate dag registers.”