Friday, November 13, 2009

Summer Vacation

Summer Vacation – what an evocative phrase. We all have memories from our childhood and adolescence of that long stretch of days that opened up before us on the last day of school. I always thought that the light in my grade school classroom looked different on that final day – more golden. And if, like me, you grew up in a city, and your summer vacation included an escape to the beach, you probably remember the pleasure of that simpler, lazier existence.

That's the feeling Colson Whitehead captures in his novel Sag Harbor. Sag Harbor is first of all a real place – a small community in the Hamptons, populated in summer mainly by the families of African American professionals who own vacation homes there, many of them built or purchased by their grandparents' generation in the 1930's and 40's. But for Whitehead's fifteen year old hero Benji Cooper, Sag Harbor is also a state of mind, an escape from the world of his elite, mostly white, Manhattan prep school to a place where he hopes to reinvent himself as a cooler, more confident version of his old self. His parents visit only on occasional weekends, so Benji, his brother Reggie and their pals have plenty of space to experiment with cool handshakes, new haircuts and BB guns.

Was Whitehead taking notes when he was fifteen? His characters seem seem so true in every detail, and the humor bubbles up on every page. He's not attempting to describe a 'special summer' where some traumatic event causes a boy to become a man. Instead he gets inside of Benji's head as he wryly observes life in Sag Harbor, and attempts to figure out who he's going to be, who he wants to be. It's funny and touching with a just a hint of melancholy.

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