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Benji Cooper is having a rough time figuring out how black he is. His status as the sole black kid in his hacky-sack circle makes him acutely aware of his skin. But his parents' wealth and his own predilections for "Star Wars" and Kraftwerk lead him to question if somehow he's not quite black enough.
"What kind of bourgie sell-out Negroes were we," he wonders, "with BMWs in the driveway (Black Man's Wagon, in case you didn't know) and private schools to teach us how to use a knife and fork, sort that from dat?"
Benji is the teenage narrator of "Sag Harbor," the new novel by Colson Whitehead. Set in the summer of 1985, the story focuses on Benji and his friends, a group of black kids who spend their vacations on Long Island's north shore doing normal teenage stuff: flipping burgers for minimum wage, cruising for girls, fearing the ocean's undertow and determining just how they fit into the world.
Still, "Sag Harbor" isn't really a coming-of-age novel. Rather, it's a fresh twist on the immigrant narrative. We see Benji as part of a new, doubly marginalized foreign group -- semiwealthy blacks -- wanting to be assimilated into black society (without losing their status) as well as into mainstream society (without losing their cultural identity).
Thankfully, Benji tells us, there are a couple of standard paths for his set: "The customary schedule for good middle-class boys and girls called for them to get militant and fashionably Afrocentric the first semester of freshman year in college ... protest the lack of tenure for that controversial professor in the Department of Black Studies ... protest the lack of a Department of Black Studies. It passed the time until business school."
But there's a sadder sort of trajectory, too. Benji is middle-aged when recounting the story, which allows him to look back and poke fun at his childhood friends for attempting such overwrought maneuvers as the Pump 'n' Dump when shaking hands. He's also able, though, to tell us about those kids who grew up with summer cottages but, later in life, get involved with and killed in the drug trade. It's not something Benji, or Whitehead, tries to understand or reconcile -- just something that happened, and its occurrence is meaningful enough without too much analysis.
What's perhaps most impressive is that Whitehead weaves these themes without making "Sag Harbor" seem like it has an agenda. As with all good fiction, the characters are more important than any message or creed that may result from their actions. The breezy prose will draw you in until, as if caught by that ominous undertow, you find that you're in deeper and darker territory than you'd intended.
Max Ross is a freelance writer in Minneapolis.