- Pub. Date:
From the author of the Man Booker longlisted The Underground Railroad
Benji spends most of the year as one of the only black kids at an elite prep school in Manhattan, going to roller disco bar mitzvahs, desperately trying to find his place in the social hierarchy.
Then he spends his summers in the African-American community of Sag Harbor on Long Island, and is just as confused. He's way behind on the latest handshakes, baffled by new slang, and his attempts to be cool and meet girls are constantly thwarted by his extremely awkward inner geek, braces and a badly cut Afro.
It's the summer of 1985 and Benji is determined that this is the summer when things will change and he'll fit in. For starters, he'll be reinvented as 'Ben'. When that doesn't catch on, it's another summer of the perpetual mortification that is teenage existence.
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About the Author
Colson Whitehead is the author of four previous novels, The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, Apex Hides the Hurt and Zone One, as well as The Colossus of New York, a collection of essays. He is the recipient of numerous awards and has frequently hit the American bestseller lists. He lives in New York.
COLSON WHITEHEAD is the author of The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, Apex Hides the Hurt, Sag Harbor, Zone One and The Underground Railroad, as well as The Colossus of New York, a collection of essays. A recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award and a MacArthur Fellowship, he lives in New York City.
Date of Birth:November 6, 1969
Place of Birth:New York, NY
Education:Harvard College, BA in English & American Literature
Read an Excerpt
Notions of Roller-Rink Infinity
First you had to settle the question of out. When did you get out? Asking this was showing off, even though anyone you could brag to had received the same gift and had come by it the same way you did. Same sun wrapped in shiny paper, same soft benevolent sky, same gravel road that sooner or later skinned you. It was hard not to believe it belonged to you more than anyone else, made for you and waiting all these years for you to come along. Everyone felt that way. We were grateful just to be standing there in that heat after such a long bleak year in the city. When did you get out? was the sound of our trap biting shut; we took the bait year after year, pure pinned joy in the town of Sag Harbor.
Then there was the next out: How long are you out for?--and the competition had begun. The magic answer was Through Labor Day or The Whole Summer. Anything less was to signal misfortune. Out for a weekend at the start of the season, to open up the house, sweep cracks, that was okay. But only coming out for a month? A week? What was wrong, were you having financial difficulties? Everyone had financial difficulties, sure, but to let it interfere with Sag, your shit was seriously amiss. Out for a week, a month, and you were allowing yourself to be cheated by life. Ask, How long are you out for? and a cloud wiped the sun. The question trailed a whiff of autumn. All answers contemplated the end, the death of summer at its very beginning. Still waiting for the bay to warm up so you could go for a swim and already picturing it frozen over. Labor Day suddenly not so far off at all.
The final out was one-half information-gathering and one-half prayer: Who else is out? The season had begun, we were proof of it, instrument of it, but things couldn't really get started until all the players took their marks, bounding down driveways, all gimme-fives. The others were necessary, and we needed word. The person standing before you in pleated salmon shorts might say, "I talked to him on Wednesday and he said they were coming out." They were always the first ones out, never missed June like their lives depended on it. (This was true.) Someone might offer, "Their lawn was cut." A cut lawn was an undeniable omen of impending habitation, today or tomorrow. "Saw a car in their driveway." Even better. There was no greater truth than a car in a driveway. A car in the driveway was an invitation to knock on the door and get down to the business of summer. Knock on that door and watch it relent under your knuckles--once you were out, the door stayed unlocked until you closed up the house.
Once we're all out, we can begin.
My name is Ben. In the summer of 1985 I was fifteen years old. My brother, Reggie, was fourteen. As for when we got out, we got out that morning, hour and a half flat, having beat the traffic. Over the course of a summer, you heard a lot of different strategies of how to beat the traffic, or at least slap it around a little. There were those who ditched the office early on Friday afternoon, casually letting their co-workers know the reason for their departure in order to enjoy a little low-pressure envy. Others headed back to the city late Sunday evening, choking every last pulse of joy from the weekend with cocoa-buttered hands. They stopped to grab a bite and watched the slow red surge outside the restaurant window while dragging clam strips through tartar sauce--soon, soon, not yet--until the coast was clear.
My father's method was easy and brutal--hit the road at five in the morning so that we were the only living souls on the Long Island Expressway, making a break for it in the haunted dark. Every so often my mother said, "There's no traffic," as if it were a miracle. Well, it wasn't really dark, June sunrises are up and at 'em, but I always remember those drives that way--memory has a palette and broad brush. Perhaps I remember it that way because my eyes were closed most of the time. The trick of those early-morning jaunts was to wake up just enough to haul a bag of clothes down to the car, nestle in, and then retreat back into sleep. Any unnecessary movement might exile you from the realm of half asleep and into the bleary half awake, so my brother and I did a zombie march slow and mute until we hit the backseat, where we turned into our separate nooks, sniffing upholstery, butt to butt, more or less looking like a Ror_schach test. What do you see in this picture? Two brothers going off in different directions.
We had recently ceased to be twins. We were born ten months apart and until I went to high school we came as a matched set, more Siamese than fraternal or identical, defined by an uncanny inseparability. Joined not at the hip or spleen or nervous system but at that more important place--that spot on your self where you meet the world.
There was something in the human DNA that compelled people to say "Benji 'n' Reggie, Benji 'n' Reggie" in a singsong way, as if we were cartoon characters or mascots of some twenty-five-cent candy. On the rare occasions we were caught alone, the first thing people asked was "Where's Benji?" or "Where's Reggie?," whereupon we delivered a thorough account of our other's whereabouts, quickly including context as if embarrassed to be caught out in the sunlight with only half a shadow: "He rode into town. He lost his CAT Diesel Power cap at the beach and went to get a new one at the five-and-ten." And the questioner nodded solemnly: Reggie's love for his CAT Diesel Power cap, fostered by '70s trucker movies, was well-known.
There was summer, and then there was the rest of the time. During the rest of the time, before we were separated, you could find us modeling gear from the Brooks Brothers Young Men's Department--smart white Oxford shirts, for example, tucked in during school hours, flapping in soft rebellion when we were home. The elementary school we went to required us to wear jackets and ties, so we did. Our wrists inevitably outran our jacket sleeves despite our mother's attempts at timely hem-jobs. The ties as a species were clip-on, but we had a few that our father tied for us at the beginning of the school year, which we then slid loose and slid tight for the next nine months, knots getting greasier and grubbier as our kiddie fingers oozed into them. We had one blue blazer and one beige corduroy jacket apiece, rotated over gray slacks and khaki pants. I was a little taller, which helped us sort out whose was whose, but not always.
What did we look like, walking down Lexington, across Sixty-second Street, side by side on our way to and from school? I remember one day in the seventh grade when an old white man stopped us on a corner and asked us if we were the sons of a diplomat. Little princes of an African country. The U.N. being half a mile away. Because--why else would black people dress like that? Looking up into his mossy teeth, I croaked a tiny "No" and tugged Reggie into the crosswalk, as my don't-talk-to-strangers/everyone-is-a-child-molester training kicked in. The TV was our babysitter, sure, so finger-wagging movies of the week were our manual on how to deal with strangers. We eagerly riffled through the literature, tsk-tsking and chuckling over tales of neglected white kids gone awry, the sad procession of zaftig and susceptible teenage hitchhikers, the pill-popping honor students turned wildcat over "the pressure to succeed." When strangers stopped us on the street asking questions, we knew what to do. Keep walking, brother. What did he look like? Senior partner in the law firm of Cracker, Cracker & Cracker. What did we look like? I don't know, but his question wasn't something we'd ever be asked in Sag Harbor. We fit in there.
Summers we branched out in our measly fashion. Freed from the dress code, what did we do? As fake twins, we couldn't shake our love of the uniform. Each day we wore the same make of shirt, but different colors, different iron-on decals. Every couple of months our mother bought us some clothes at Gimbels--security cameras capture her foraging for her cubs, murmuring "Two of these, and two of these"--and then tossed them into our cage for us to hyena-yip over who got what. Want the maroon terry-cloth shirt? Get to it first or else you'll be wearing the olive one 'til next Christmas. R2-D2 jammies for you, C-3PO for me. You had to work fast. Dibs was all.
We were a bit of a genre when you pried open a family photo album: There's Benji 'n' Reggie slouching in the beach grass, leaning on the hood of that summer's rented car, huddled on a bench outside the ice-cream parlor. One brother in a powder-blue Izod polo, the other in a crimson Izod drizzled with Rocky Road. Arms noosed around each other's necks, always wearing the same shirts but for that one crucial, differentiating detail that was everything. The same, but a little off, and it was to that crooked little corner of difference that we truly aspired.
Our expressions, picture to picture? Me: pained and dyspeptic, squinting in discomfort at the discovery of some new defect in the design of the world, the thought bubble asking, "Aren't we all just ants under the magnifying glass, really?" and "Is this the passing of our days, so much Pixy Stix dust falling in an hourglass?" The only time "early bloomer" has ever been applied to me is vis-Æ-vis my premature apprehension of the deep dread-of-existence thing. In all other cases, I plod and tromp along. My knuckles? Well dragged.
Say Cheese. And what's Reggie up to? Mugging, of course, cross-eyed, sneering, fingers bent into devil's horns, waving his dented beggar's cup for one extra ounce of precious attention, a rare element in our household. We knew we wanted to be separated but could only bear it in slim degrees. So when our father showed up with knockoff souvenirs from the 1976 Montreal Olympics, I snagged the javelin T-shirt, Reggie reached for the shot-put T-shirt, and we broke out of the locker-room tunnel into the arena of sunlight, summer after summer, members of the same team. It was nice to have a team, even if it was just us two.
Where is the surgeon gifted enough to undertake this risky operation, separate these hapless conjoined? Paging Doc Puberty, arms scrubbed, smocked to the hilt, smacking the nurses on the ass, and well-versed in all the latest techniques. More suction! Javelin and shot put--that's about right. Hormones sent me up and airborne, tall and skinny, a knock-kneed little reed, while Reggie, always chubby in the cheeks and arms, bulged out into something round and pinchable, soft and smooth, where I stuck out in sharp angles. We disentangled week by week, one new hair at a time. Junior high, they called it.
There were no complications on the physical separation, but what about the mental one, to sever the phantom connection whereby if Reggie stubbed his toe, I cried out in pain, and vice versa? The moment of my psychic release was occasioned by Liza Finkelstein's eighth-grade roller-disco party in the spring of '83.
It was bar mitzvah season, a good time to be alive by any measure, but particularly for die-hard finger-food aficionados like myself. As my friends underwent their time-honored initiation rituals, I experienced my own coming-of-age, culinary-wise. I had led a rather sheltered life with regards to bite-sized snacks, having only messed around with Mini Hot Dogs, La Choy Egg Rolls, and other lovelies of the Preheat To 350 school. The racy, catered pleasures of the full-tilt, bank-busting, don't-you-love-me bar mitzvah were a revelation. I remember marveling at the silver hors d'oeuvres trays as they dipped and flitted through the air like flying saucers out of a '50s sci-fi movie, bearing alien life forms I had never reckoned, messengers of gustatory peace and goodwill. Chicken teriyaki on skewers, Swedish meatballs squatting in brown pools, all manner of dipping sauces in dark and gluey abundance--it was dizzying, and that wasn't just the thimbles of Manischewitz talking.
I was used to being the only black kid in the room--I was only there because I had met these
assorted Abes and Sarahs and Dannys in a Manhattan private school, after all--but there was something instructive about being the only black kid at a bar mitzvah. Every bar or bat mitzvah should have at least one black kid with a yarmulke hovering on his Afro--it's a nice visual joke, let's just get that out of the way, but more important it trains the kid in question to determine when people in the corner of his eye are talking about him and when they are not, a useful skill in later life when sorting out bona-fide persecution from perceived persecution, the this-is-actually-happening from the mere paranoid manifestation. "Who's that?" "Whisper whisper a friend of Andy's from school.
" "So regal and composed--he looks like a young Sidney Poitier." "Whisper whisper or the son of an African diplomat!"
Eventually I'd have some company when the occasional R&B band showed up to drag themselves through the obligatory Motown retrospective, with the inevitable "Super Freak" thrown in_._._._as Liza Finkelstein, grim and silent, squashed her place setting in her fist and cursed us all. Her parents were civil rights lawyers, not that I knew what that meant, except that it compelled Liza to blurt out "My parents were there!" on that one day a year when a teacher mentioned the March on Washington. Her parents respected all races, colors, and creeds, unless that creed was their own. According to some lefty calculus they had concluded that the traditions of their faith were bogus, and consequently Liza was going to have to wait a while before entering the world of calligraphic invitations and their little guppy RSVP envelopes.
Rebellion trickles down. Liza's "My parents were there!"s diminished in enthusiasm year by year, to be true, but I think it was bat mitzvah season, with its exuberant pageantry and lovely haul of presents, that puckered her to new pouty extremes. To be so exiled. It came to pass that one bright spring morning our hippie English teacher Mr. Johnson mentioned the March on Washington and the assembled of Homeroom 8B instinctively turned to Liza to hear her declaration for the last time. Perhaps we were feeling sentimental. We'd be in high school in a few months, split up after being together--some of us--since pre-K. This was a milestone, and we waited for Liza to give us what we needed. The moments piled up. A suspicion or fear that Liza might not provide her necessary service began to creep across the room in the same way that, gently, menthol cigarette smoke crept from under the door of the teachers' lounge. My eyes fell to her checkered New Wave knee-high socks, and I thought, Liza's not New Wave. Then she sneered a "My parents were there," rolling her eyes and kicking her feet out into the aisle between desks. Liza didn't need the whole bat mitzvah treatment. She was a teenager in that moment.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group's discussion of Sag Harbor, a tender, hilarious, and supremely original novel about coming-of-age in the '80s.
1. How does each of Benji’s comrades (Reggie, NP, Randy, Bobby, Marcus, Clive) contribute to the group? What challenges do they face as friends?
2. Explain the differences between Benji’s age group and that of his sister. During these years, why is the disparity between high school and college so acute?
3. Benji comments that “the rock” on the beach near his beach house serves as a racial barrier. White people won’t walk much further past it. What similar examples can you think of that exist today or in your own community? How have racial barriers changed in the last twenty years? How are they still the same?
4. The emergence of hip-hop is a strong influence in the lives of Benji and his friends. In what ways does music affect their generation? In what ways has music affected your own life?
5. Benji grapples with his identity throughout the novel. At one point he states: “According to the world we were the definition of a paradox: black boys with beach houses. A paradox to the outside, but it never occurred to us that there was anything strange about it” (Pg. 71).
How is this community a paradox? How is Benji’s identity shaped by the two worlds he inhabits, both during the school year, and then during the summer season?
6. Benji often refers to the handshake, song, and/or dance he will surely conquer by the “end” of the summer. To what degree is he constantly trying to reinvent himself?
7. What do you think are the characteristics of a typical 1980s adolescent? How does Benji fit the stereotype? How is he different?
8. Benji clearly realizes toward the end of the summer that what he loves, is perhaps not the girls he pines after, but his beach home and “what he put into it.” He reflects back on a tender moment with his family and the fond memories of being a child. What is it about our childhoods that evoke such special memories within us? Is there a place from your own past that touched your life as Sag Harbor touched Benji?
9. Throughout the novel there looms a hint of darkness behind the relationship between Benji’s father and his family. His father seems to have a violent strain. How does this affect Benji and his family? What is the role of the father in a young man’s coming-of-age?
10. From Catcher in the Rye to Stand by Me, the coming-of-age novel is a perennial in American literature. What do you think is so appealing and universal about this genre?
(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)