Written by Jan Kline on June 18, 2009

…with your monkey a**

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I just finished Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor. It’s a perfect, slightly sentimental slice of an adolescent summer. This is a very specific summer — 1985 — in a unique social world: Sag Harbor is a relatively unknown getaway in the Hamptons where well-to-do African Americans from New York have spent their vacations for decades. Benji, the hero, is out for the summer with his younger brother, Reggie, hoping to morph from his nerdy D&D-playing, Star Wars Marathon-watching self into someone named Ben, who might actually be cool and get somewhere with girls.

He has only limited success. He can’t get anyone to call him Ben, at least not for most of the summer. The only two girls in his age group quickly get snapped up by others. But along the way, we get a richly detailed portrait of this world. Jonathan Lethem says “This is one of my favorite kinds of books, where memory’s kinesthetic floodgates open up to illuminate a lost world. It’s like a meticulous diorama of the recent past, with the sharp edges of an exhibit in a museum, one where we learn just how strange and specific the universal experience of “coming of age” really can be.”

We learn the speed with which one insider handshake is replaced with another, and the grammatical intricacies of his group’s insults:

“You f***in’” acted as a rhetorical pause, allowing the speaker a few extra seconds to pluck some splendid modifier out of the invective ether, and giving the listener a chance to gird himself for the top-notch put-down/splendid imagery to follow. True masters of the style sometimes attached the nonsensical “with your monkey a**” as a kicker, to convey sincerity and depth of feeling. Hence, “You f***in’ Kunta Kinte-lookin’ motherf***er… with your monkey a**.”

If this makes Sag Harbor sound like nothing more than a long string of swear words, it isn’t. At the end of the book, Benji gets the idea that he has grown up a little over the summer. At the annual Labor Day Party, he eyes the crowd, looking for both the younger replacement for himself, and the model of his older self:

Maybe my earlier model, the jolly son of Sag Harbor I was replacing, was looking at me in that moment, a can of Budweiser resting on his paunch, bad mustache shrubbing his lip, thinking Why is he standing around when he could be out having fun? Such a chump. I can relate. Talking about that summer all this time, sometimes I have to stop and say, I don’t know who this Benji kid is, either. Certainly he would not recognize the man he came to be. The poor sap. I need him to figure out how I got where I am, and he needs me to reassure him that despite all he knows and has seen and feels, there is more. I can listen to him. But of course he can’t hear a damn thing I say…

…Look at the way I was last Labor Day. An idiot! Fifteen looks at fourteen and says, That guy was an idiot.

author photo: Gordon M. Grant for the New York Times

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