It was the era of roller discos and "Bette Davis Eyes," an age when much rested upon whether you liked Classic Oldies, New Coke, or Dungeons & Dragons, as Colson Whitehead learned firsthand. After winning numerous awards for his previous novels, The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, and Apex Hides the Hurt, Whitehead examines his own past in his new novel, Sag Harbor, which he will discuss at the Berkeley Public Library's Central Branch (2090 Kittredge St., Berkeley) on Tuesday, May 19.
"The Seventies were probably worse," Whitehead muses. "I'm not sure, but I think the Eighties were a close second in terms of recent horrible decades." Back then, he chuckles, "if you wanted to see a naked person, you had to stay up until 1 a.m. and watch Cinemax."
Pondering sex, songs, slang, and shoes — his brother Reggie's "beloved kicks" are a "sheer gleaming white" pair of Filas — the novel's teenage narrator, Benji Cooper, recounts one summer spent in the Long Island village where many middle-class African Americans owned holiday homes. "A lot of people don't know about the black community in Sag Harbor," Whitehead explains, "but there were black professionals — doctors, lawyers, teachers in their twenties and thirties — who wanted a place to go in the summer. They weren't particularly welcome" in the Hamptons, at the Jersey Shore, "or basically anywhere, so they found this place and started coming out. It spread by word of mouth." Cousins, friends, and co-workers told each other about Sag Harbor, and an enclave was born.
As the novel begins, the Coopers are heading to Sag Harbor from the city: "Driving with my father, it was potholes of double consciousness the whole way," Benji tells us. "There were only two things he would listen to on the radio: Easy Listening and Afrocentric Talk Radio. ... And all those sounds seeped into my dreams. ... Every time Karen Carpenter opened her mouth it was like the lid of a sugar bowl tinkling open and closed to expose deep dunes of whiteness."
But parents seldom stayed long in Sag Harbor. "It sounds strange," Whitehead says, "but the parents would stay in the city Monday through Friday, working, and only come out on weekends, leaving the boys to themselves" in their summer homes. "Luckily, they were nerds," he says of he and his friends, "so they wouldn't have a lot of shenanigans. Looking back, it was a missed opportunity, but that's the way it went down. Not a lot happened." That's a funny thing to say about the milieu of your new novel, but he's keeping it real. "So there's no dead body they find, like in Stand By Me. There's not a lynching or the KKK chasing them through the Hamptons." Summer vacation, the author philosophizes, was ever thus: "a lot of tedium, a few insights." 7 p.m. (Donations to the Berkeley Public Library Foundation are suggested, but not required.) BerkeleyPublicLibrary.org