The kids in Colson Whitehead's latest novel are no blond Californians, drag-racing through the 1960s. They are black Manhattanites, summering on Long Island in the '80s.
But the comparison with "American Graffiti" is irresistible. Evoking a particular time and place, "Sag Harbor," like that coming-of-age movie, captures a slice of teenage life during one carefree summer. Whitehead nails the lingo and the soundtrack of the period just right.
By Colson Whitehead
It's an "American Graffiti," however, without that movie's ending shocker.
As the final credits roll in the film, we are given a jolting update of the lives of the free-wheeling chums who have been paraded before us, hinting at the loss of innocence to come.
Making only a passing reference to his characters' future, Whitehead paints a remarkable portrait of a moment in time when one group of young black teens teetered between childhood and manhood on the edge of the Hamptons, one of America's richest and whitest playgrounds. But his snapshot stays stuck in the decade.
The tale, which Whitehead calls his "Autobiographical Fourth Novel," is narrated by 30-something Benji Cooper as he looks back on the summer when he and twin brother Reggie turned 15.
Once more, they meet up with their childhood friends at their families' beach houses in Azurest, the black neighborhood of Sag Harbor on Long Island.
Those beach houses first had been occupied by the doctors, lawyers, city workers, teachers and undertakers who had prospered, thanks to Jim Crow's segregated logic. They had settled on Sag Harbor Bay because "the white people owned the coastline, South Hampton, Bridgehampton, East Hampton. ... No Negroes, please," Benji explains.
By the '80s, their descendants no longer faced such blatant discrimination, but racism lingered on, leaving the beach houses still in an all-black enclave just off the official map of Sag Harbor.
"Black boys with beach houses. It could mess with your head sometimes, if you were the susceptible sort," admits Benji. "And if it messed with you head, got under your brown skin, there were some typical and well-known remedies."
Remedy No. 1: "You could embrace the beach part -- revel in the luxury, the perception of status, wallow without care in what it meant to be born in America with money; or the appearance of money, as the case may be. No apologies."
Remedy No. 2: "You could embrace the black part -- take some idea you had about what real blackness was, and make theater of it, your 24-7 one-man show."
Variations included the Bootstrapping Striver and Proud Pillar or the more popular Militant.
There was a third alternative -- "embrace the contradiction" -- but, as Benji points out, in that decade, there weren't many role models for that approach. And the contradiction loomed large.
Even the car drives to Long Island from Manhattan with his parents were filled with "potholes of double consciousness the whole way." En route, his father listened to easy listening and Afrocentric talk radio, alternating between the sugar shock of Karen Carpenter and news of crummy schools, police brutality and racism.
This concept of black double consciousness was an old one, of course. But at 15, Benji had not yet read W.E.B. DuBois' essay about the peculiar sensation felt by African Americans of "two warring ideals in one dark body."
Benji only knew DuBois as one of the famous black people his parents revered who once came out to Sag Harbor and fried fish behind their summer home.
What do teenagers care about black history?
Benji and his young pals were far more interested in getting wheels, finding girls (always in short supply) and fitting in. For the most part, we see the summer of 1985 from their young perspective, following Benji and his gang as they cruise around town, get jobs at the local soda fountain and roam the beaches.
Whitehead's narrator, however, is not 15, and occasionally the perspective of the older and presumably wiser Benji emerges. After the boys fight with BB guns, for example, and a BB is lodged between Benji's tear duct and his eyebrow -- "It's still there. Under the skin ... good for a story, something to shock people with ..."
The man who has replaced that "other boy" offers this commentary:
"For some of us, those were our first guns, a rehearsal, I'd like to say, all these years later, now that one of us is dead and another paralyzed from the waist down from actual bullets -- drug-related, as the papers put it -- that the game wasn't so innocent after all. But it's not true. We always fought for real. Only the nature of the fight changed. It always will. As time went on, we learned to arm ourselves in our different ways."
That's Whitehead's version, I suppose, of the sobering denouement of "American Graffiti." But this glimpse into the future awaiting these boys of summer is maddeningly vague. We never know which boy was the victim, who was maimed or, beyond Benji himself, who managed to survive.
Does it matter? I think it does. Lumping the fates of all these kids together, as if their lives and those summers in Sag Harbor were experienced by a group rather than by individuals, seems an idea more worthy of a 15-year-old than his older, wiser self.
The different weapons these boys eventually chose -- ideas, improbable plans and real guns -- were hardly of equal value. Benji and his friends all may have started out as "blacks with beach houses," but they all didn't take the same trajectory as they moved through the world. In "Sag Harbor" we never learn why.
By Colson Whitehead
Margo Hammond, former book editor of the St. Petersburg Times, is co-author of "Between the Covers: The Book Babes' Guide to a Woman's Reading Pleasures."