At Home in Sag Harbor: Colson Whitehead’s new novel


Colson Whitehead’s novel “Sag Harbor” officially hit the bookstores this past Tuesday, and while there has been a lot of national press lately about his newest offering, those who know this village intimately will really find much in it that rings true.

East End place names, back roads and the intricacies of Sag Harbor in summer resonate throughout the book. There are images of abandoned cars in the woods behind Mashashimuet Park, the odor of burnt waffle cones emanating from the ice cream parlor on Long Wharf and tales of overdue trips to the dump with dripping garbage bags squirming with maggots.

It’s all well-known territory for those of us who live here.

But there are other revelations in the book as well, maybe not so well known to the general population, including references to the long gone Bridgehampton drive in, the disco on the wharf and trips to Caldors (K-Mart’s predecessor).

“Sag Harbor” is set in the beachfront neighborhood of Azurest which, along with Ninevah and Sag Harbor Hills, makes up the village’s summer African-American community. In the 1940s, Maud Terry (for whom Terry Drive is named) envisioned a beachfront community for blacks seeking refuge from the city and convinced the owner of a 20 acre parcel off Route 114 to subdivide it into small lots. These were purchased by friends and relatives ($750 per lot — $1,000 for a lot on the water) who built summer cottages.

Whitehead’s novel is set smack dab in the middle of the 1980s, a couple generations removed from the original Azurest settlers, when his main character, Benji, is 15 and spending the summer in his family’s waterfront cottage with his slightly younger brother, Reggie. With their parents working in the city, Benji and Reggie are left to their own devices in Sag Harbor during the week, which means they spend a lot of time eating canned soup, hanging out at the beach, working for minimum wage at the ice cream store (“Jonni Waffle”), and engaging in BB gun fights with friends at twilight among the undeveloped lots of the neighborhood.

There is a whole subset of ‘80s specific teenage cultural references to relive in “Sag Harbor” as well — including sneaker terminology, New Coke, bands like Dépêche Mode, Run DMC and Siouxsie and the Banshees, and USA Network’s Friday night variety show, “Night Flight.”

“I have a writer’s mentality,” says Whitehead. “I’m very good at remembering that kind of stuff — pop culture. I can see myself on the green carpet watching ‘Night Flight.’ I worshiped ‘Night Flight’ — I wasn’t going out.”

“And I did love Coca Cola,” he adds. “I didn’t know what caffeine was until high school. I drank three Cokes a day — no one told me to lay off it.”

In the universe of Benji and Reggie (a.k.a. the “Kids with the Empty House”) and their gang of friends, the only truth that really matters at the start of a Sag Harbor summer is the one that determines “who’s out already?” “who’s coming out?” and “who doesn’t come out anymore?”

This book is distinctly unlike earlier Whitehead novels (“The Intuitionist” and “John Henry Days”) which the author himself describes as “sort of strange and brainy.” Like summer itself, the book focuses on the simple and uncomplicated pleasures of childhood, albeit with the occasional looming specter of adulthood. For his part, Whitehead stresses that “Sag Harbor,” the novel, was born not on the heels of youthful nostalgia but rather, as an attempt to put this place into context for the uninitiated.

“I started going out again a couple years ago, and tried to explain who the people were and how the neighborhood was created — and it took so long to explain,” says Whitehead, who lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Natasha, and their four and a half year old daughter, Maddie.

When asked how closely his own personality at the age of 15 meshes with that of the fictional Benji, Whitehead responds, “I was definitely a clueless mess. The book is an adult looking back and ordering his childhood. The adult perspective makes him [Benji] a more workable character.”

This novel is somewhat autobiographical though, and like Benji, Whitehead worked at a Sag Harbor ice cream store, has a younger brother (Clarke) and remembers being left to fend for himself during the week in Sag Harbor.

“I talked to my mother about it and she said, ‘Did that really happen?’” says Whitehead. “It’s an odd fact. Did they leave us out here? We could’ve gotten into stuff, but we didn’t … We were good kids, and there were elements of acting out. But you couldn’t go outside without the neighbors watching next door.”

The realities of life in a close knit and closely watched community — both socially and spatially — are key in the novel’s more serious plot points. The upside of small lots is friendly neighbors who stop by unannounced on their way to and from the beach for a glass of wine or some small talk. The downside for Benji is open windows and neighbors within earshot when family troubles are brewing.

For example, on one weekend morning, Benji’s father starts hitting the liquor cabinet much too early and frequently, putting Benji on edge and in search of escape through his friends — who disappear in his hour of need. When Benji’s father launches into a vicious verbal attack of mother for buying cheap paper plates too flimsy to support his barbecuing efforts, everyone involved, including a neighbor coming up the steps to say hello, retreats in a self-protective cocoon of silence.

For Benji, in the ‘80s, reconciling life in Azurest with the new and idealistic face of the upper middle class African-American family depicted in the Cosby Show is not a simple matter. When asked how the experiences and friendships of his generation differ from those of his parents and grandparents, Whitehead hits on the idea of identity.

“There is much more class anxiety in our generation,” says Whitehead. “The issue of authenticity and are you black enough if you go to private school and spend summer in the Hamptons. Do you buy into it? My parents’ or grandparents’ generation were making businesses and carving out the black upper middle class community. A feature of growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s was that we were in the aftermath.”

Whitehead spends Julys in Sag Harbor (he will have book events this summer at both Canio’s Books and the Eastville Community Historical Society), and now that he is a husband and parent himself, bringing the next generation out for the summer, he notes what has changed for today’s kids in the neighborhood.

“The times of having a gang of six or eight guys seems to be over,” says Whitehead. “Now people go out just for a week, or a weekend. The new kids don’t run like they used to. These days, they do things like go to summer camp rather than running wild.”

Despite the many changes that have come to both Sag Harbor and Azurest since the long ago days of youth, Whitehead still manages to enjoy the simple pleasures of life on the bay.

“I like sitting in my mom’s house reading quietly,” he says. “Just having the mid- afternoon light coming in through the trees and WLNG playing on the radio.”

Top image: Colson Whitehead

Above: A young Colson Whitehead (holding a beloved can of Coke) with his brother, Clarke, in Sag Harbor.

Bottom: The cover image of “Sag Harbor: A Novel”