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Colson Whitehead
Sag Harbor
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2009

Doubleday / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-307-45516-1
Publication Date: 04-28-2009
288 pages; $24.95
Date Reviewed: 03-04-2009

Index:  General Fiction

There's more than one way to get the hell away from the troubles of this very day. Invented and fantasy worlds can take us out of ourselves and offer a new perspective. But the point of great writing is that you can experience another person's life in words; and it's a good idea to choose that life, those words carefully. Because it's not just the life that matters, it’s the approach. In 'Sag Harbor,' Colson Whitehead takes readers back to 1985 and displays a peerless sense of taste. If you spent your 1980's with your nose in Fangoria Magazine, trying to find out the make secrets behind Freddy Krueger, then you definitely want to spend some quality time in the 21st century reading 'Sag Harbor'.

It helps to have a sense of humor about yourself. Colson Whitehead's memorable non-memoir 'Sag Harbor' is first and foremost, very, very funny. It's quite a few other things as well β€” immersive, intelligently-written and insightful. But the perspective it provides, the insight it offers, is that it is OK to look at yourself and laugh. That perception alone can turn the world around.

Whitehead himself (in that dryly humorous ARC blurb) calls 'Sag Harbor' his, "Autobiographical Fourth Novel, as opposed to the standard Autobiographical First Novel." He tells us on the front of the advance reading copy that, "The people are made up, but the houses are all real." So you now know, going in, that you're getting a slice of life, in this case, in the 1980's. Benji Cooper is oine of just a few black students at a hoity-toity prep school in Manhattan. But being black is what makes him stand out so much as being the sort of kid who reads Fangoria. That proves to be a social faux-pas from which there is no recovery, but it's exactly the thing that will seal his appeal to readers of this column. Of course, the fact that his hair is a misshapen lump of something awkwardly attached to his skull doesn't help. The only thing that makes life bearable for those in these straits is the ability to put sharp words in a bow, then aim, draw and shoot with unerring accuracy, time after time. In a series of sentences, a life that might have seemed non-descript is transformed into a rocking good time for anyone who groks the English language.

It helps a lot if you "grok" as opposed to "understand" or "get it." You see, Benji's what we would now affectionately call a "geek," a term I'm not fond of, because generally those who use it but are not it really seem to have some nose-lookin'-down going on. But, like, whatever. It's 1985, and Benji's the guy, like us, who listens to Siouxsie and the Banshees while he's playing Dungeons and Dragons. This does not endear him to the general populace of his prep school or indeed the world at large. It might not even endear him to readers were it not for Whitehead/Cooper's wicked sense of humor and mind-blowing skills with the English language. Benji and his cadre of friends are nothing less than a total hoot to be around. 'Sag Harbor' makes the time slip away in three fashions; it transports you to the time in your life when it was difficult to be in your own skin β€” no matter what sort of skin or what period of history, those hurts and joys are universal; it takes you back to 1985 with a detailed sense of time and place β€” and it takes you away from this world while you're reading it. This day, so what? And, for what it's worth, Siouxsie and the Banshees are still touring. Who says you can't go home again?

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