The Rumpus Original Combo: Colson Whitehead

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bookreview060320_2_198bColson Whitehead is the author of the novels The Intuitionist, John Henry Days and Apex Hides the Hurt, as well as a collection of essays, The Colossus of New York. His new novel, Sag Harbor, has just been published by Doubleday. What follows is a review of Sag Harbor, followed by an interview with Colson Whitehead—or, as we like to call this literary twofer: The Rumpus Original Combo. Enjoy!

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The Rumpus Review of Sag Harbor

Reading Colson Whitehead’s work is a bit like looking at a completed Rubik’s Cube: you marvel at the construction—Whitehead’s sentences are surprising enough to give you a shiver of appreciation for the syntax, for the words that were spun into place—and then wonder how long it took to put it all together. One gets the sense that Whitehead, 39, who has already published five books (and won a MacArthur “genius grant” along the way), is the kind of guy who works so fast and with such cool dexterity that all you can do is shake your head and say, “Man…!”

34957076Whitehead’s latest novel, Sag Harbor, is set in 1985 and features exquisite riffs on everything from Stouffer’s French Bread Pizza to U.T.F.O. to New Coke. For many in my generation, who came of age in the Reagan years, this sociological study of our childhoods will be hard to resist.

Sag Harbor is narrated by Benji Cooper, who looks back from adulthood on the summer when he was fifteen. Benji is black and attends a mostly white private school in Manhattan, but in summer he relocates to his family’s beach house on the East End of Long Island, where a community of African-Americans has vacationed for three generations. During the school year, Benji is often the only black person in the room, but in Sag Harbor he and his younger brother are surrounded by other “black boys with beach houses.” America may be obsessed with The Cosby Show, but Benji and his friends know that they still fly in the face of socio-economic stereotypes about race:

“Black boys with beach houses. It could mess with your heads sometimes, if you were the susceptible sort… 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. 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… Act hard, act out, act in a way that would come to be called gangsterish… Or you could embrace the contradiction, say, what you call paradox, I call myself. In theory.”

In a series of set pieces, Benji and his friends embrace the beach part (hijinks in an ice cream parlor, a stealthy foray into a music venue) and flirt with the gangsterish (in one section they stage a disastrous BB gun war in the woods and Benji notes that, “For some of us, those were our first guns. Our rehearsal.”) But it is clear that Benji’s fight will be waged with a different weapon: words. In telling his story—contradictions and all—he opts to write his own identity.

Benji’s entire identity is hyphenated: a union of the traditions handed down to him by the older generations in Sag Harbor and the ones learned from his peers, black and white. This theme of double-consciousness is overt—Whitehead quotes W.E.B. DuBois early in the book—but it’s a double-consciousness shaped not only by race, but also the insecurities of adolescence. Benji and his teenage friends have a preference for literal hyphens as well, stringing together elaborate insults for one another (my personal favorite: “you fuckin’ Cha-Ka from The Land of the Lost-lookin’ motherfucker”) in a phenomenal display of “grammatical acrobatics” that is reason enough to read Sag Harbor.

jersey_shore_hdrDespite his “early-summer dream of reinvention,” Benji’s self-proclaimed “dork constitution” can’t keep up with the latest handshakes from the city streets (“Devised in the underground soul laboratories of Harlem, pounded out in the blacker-than-thou sweatshops of the South Bronx, the new handshakes always had me faltering in embarrassment”) and he’s more at home playing Dungeons & Dragons than chasing girls. On top of all this social anxiety, his parents’ marriage is miserable and his alcoholic father has a frightening temper. But for all Benji’s awkwardness and angst, we never really doubt that he’ll triumph in the end; his voice is too sure-footed to suggest anything else.

Whitehead’s previous novels examined race and identity using wildly original conceits: The Intuitionist is a noir detective story set in the feuding Department of Elevator Inspectors; John Henry Days is a postmodern fable inspired by the legend of John Henry; and Apex Hides the Hurt is a satiric parable about language and consumerism. All three were easy to admire, but their brilliant surfaces allowed no vulnerability, provided few cracks in which to get a foothold. He calls Sag Harbor his “autobiographical fourth novel” (like Benji, he attended private schools in Manhattan and summered in Sag Harbor) and in mining material so close to home he has written his most resonant book, his first foray into first-person narration. The result is a novel with a looser grip, less conceived and more keenly felt than its predecessors, best served not by its nimble cool but by its fumbling warmth. The scenes between Benji and his father, in particular, are so achingly good that I wished this conflict had been further explored.

With the exception of a small (and anonymous) stand he takes against racism at the ice cream parlor where he works, Benji is relatively passive, a relatively detached observer. And Sag Harbor doesn’t have a strong narrative arc, no major revelations arrive with the end of summer. This might lead to stasis were it not for Whitehead’s language, so powerfully elastic and rhythmic that it generates its own momentum. Benji’s voice is whip-smart and often as funny as a great stand-up act—coming from such a private family, the telling of his story requires a bit of swagger. That story is ultimately as affecting a treatise on race and inheritance as Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father—but with all due respect to our President, this book is a lot funnier.

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The Rumpus Interview with Colson Whitehead

700861_550x550_mb_art_r0The Rumpus: Benji, the narrator of Sag Harbor, comes from a family that believes in keeping its business private—merely talking about his childhood is an act of courage on Benji’s part. Did writing this “autobiographical fourth novel” (as you call it) feel risky in any way?

Colson Whitehead: Let’s get the boilerplate disclaimer out of the way—I overlap with Benji, and use my summer of 1985 as a touchtone for his experience, but you can’t make a one-to-one correlation between my life and his, blah blah, it’s fictional, blah blah and etc.

That said, when I started the book I knew I had to go “all-in,” as they say on those TV poker shows. I was going to dive into all that grisly and gruesome adolescent muck and try not to gag—if I didn’t, the reader wouldn’t see their own horrible squirming existence in Benji’s existence. Once I was up to my chin, it was easy to be truthful about other things—things I had experienced myself and could transform into something that would serve the story, and things I have witnessed in other people’s lives. I had a strict No-Flinch policy from the get-go.

Rumpus: The novel is set in the summer of 1985, when Benji is fifteen. Why did you select this particular summer in Benji’s life?

CW: I needed the boys to have a certain agency—they could stay alone in the house for days on end—but I also needed them to be clueless dolts. They needed to be in-between, both boys and men and neither, play into the double-consciousness that is so present in the book in different ways. Frankly, I’m most acquainted with what it is to be a teenager when we’re talking ‘80s teenager. Picking the exact year was a bit more random. I knew I wanted to use a lot of pop culture to filter their experience, and specifically wanted to use Doug E Fresh & Slick Rick’s paradigm-shifting single, “The Show/La Di Da Di”… which came out in 1985. I ended up using “The Message” and “Roxanne Roxanne” instead—I got more juice out of them—but the importance of “La Di Da Di” was part of the original thinking. Just kinda accidental.

Rumpus: Your fiction always features sharp commentary on pop culture. In this book, the hilarious commentary is part of Benji’s attempt to navigate a pop culture minefield—every brand and musical artist is loaded with associations about race and class—and fashion his own identity. Is Benji’s role as critic necessary to his survival?

CW: I think it’s important for everyone—but I think it’s when we hit the teenage years that we become aware of it. Is this uncool? Should I be more like them? What part of myself do I have to hide in order to fit in? What do I have to buy into in order to get past the bouncer of Club Normal? With Ben’s adult perspective, he can analyze the choices of his youth with a more detached and critical eye.

rundmc

Run-D.M.C.

Rumpus: Benji samples from different sub-cultures. He listens to both Run-D.M.C. and the Smiths, for example. Are you conscious of sampling from different literary styles? Are there particular writers or genres that excite you as a reader?

CW: I wouldn’t say I’m conscious of it—it’s just how one works, it seems to me. One book may need this kind of sentence, another book might need another kind of structure, so maybe this year Raymond Carver might provide a nice example, and another year Thomas Pynchon might provide some clues on how to organize something. You use the right tool for the job; there’s no one “school” that provides all the answers. Writers I dig whom I probably don’t mention enough when people ask me what writers I like: Whitman, Ginsburg, Dos Passos. What the heck: Rod Serling.

Rumpus: Benji and his friends use language to prop themselves up and to project some kind of authenticity. There’s a sense that words are the most powerful things in this world, even more powerful than the boys’ BB guns or the punches that Benji’s father throws. Language is often transformative and empowering in your work—is this a theme you’ve consciously explored?

CW: I’m a writer, so that’s one of the foundational premises of my job. By finding the right words, I master my world; by finding the exactly right words, others can see that their world is identical to mine. We’re all made of the same stuff. In terms of the cussing, I was raised on Richard Pryor and George Carlin, so came to believe in the profundity of the profane. They’re word-drunk clown prophets of the tragic, cold-lampin’ with Beckett.

Rumpus: Now that Obama is president, do you think readers will find that “black boys with beach houses” is not the paradox that Benji and his friends were taught to think it was in the Reagan years?

CW: My publisher videotaped me walking around Sag Harbor, and The Stranger was nice enough to mention it on their blog. In the comments, some people believe that the video is a hoax–“There are no black people in Sag Harbor, I’ve been there.” So: the magic Obama dust has not yet transformed the nation into the post-racial utopia he promised during the campaign. He better get crackin’!

Rumpus: Detractors might say that this novel doesn’t have much of a plot. What would you say to those quibblers?

whitehead_john_henry_daysCW: It’s a novel without a strong plot. So what? Sometimes I do plot, sometimes I don’t; it depends on what the story needs. I didn’t want to go the usual coming-of-age route—find a dead body, witness a crime, accidentally knock someone off, horrible life-changing accident. Chicken Pox. I wanted to be true to the lesson of so many people’s summers—we may be a little smarter by Labor Day, but not much. The stakes are smaller, sure, but that’s how we actually live.

From a craft perspective, if you remove one element, you need to replace it with something else, give the reader something else tangible to hold on to. In Sag Harbor, Benji’s voice, situation and unique perspective is the structural element holding the book together. I almost hedged that last bit (“I hope Benji’s voice is enough to…”), but fuck it, I think I pulled it off, or else I’d still be working on it.

Rumpus: This book is dedicated to your daughter. How is her experience of Sag Harbor different from yours when you were growing up?

CW: People keep asking me, “You won’t let her stay all week by herself when she’s a teenager, will you?” To which I respond, “Hells no!” We used to leave the house at 10am and come back when the streetlights came on. Vanish all day. That doesn’t go on anymore. The kids out there now are really over-supervised. They wear bike helmets! But more important, there isn’t a whole gang of kids running around like there was when I was younger… it’s much more sparse, kids-wise. That kind of world doesn’t exist anymore.

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You can follow Colson on twitter @colsonwhitehead.


Elliott Holt's fiction has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Guernica, Kenyon Review Online, and The Pushcart Prize XXXV: Best of the Small Presses. She has an MFA from Brooklyn College and lives in Brooklyn. More from this author →