Sag Harbor: Chapters 2 and 3

Hi, everyone:

Mary, I am sorry to hear that you dislike this book so much. I was hoping readers would find it enjoyable and funny, if not relatable. I, too, am neither male nor black, and I did not grow up going to a summer home, but I can understand Benji’s awkwardness and flubbed attempts to figure out how he fits in with the world.

Certain references really make me laugh, like saying, “Dag.” I remember saying that to my friends. I like how Benji describes the use of dag: “Dag was bitter acknowledgment of the brutish machinery of the world.… In the heyday of dag, we accepted our duty to call attention to such moments, taking turns at this minor masochism. It passed the time.” That so much emotion can be invested in one three-letter word of slang is, I think, a testament to good writing.

Whereas I think the first chapter set up the themes at large in the book, Chapter 2 goes into detail about this motley crew of characters and their rules for fitting in. There are codes and slang words to be learned. I find Benji really charming when he makes a chart about the typical insult involving a modifier, an -in’ verb, and an object. He is so nerdy that he makes charts to explain insults! He is also such a dork that the handshakes confound him: “Slam, grip, flutter, snap. Or was it slam, flutter, grip, snap?”

Benji is also grateful Marcus is there to deflect attention from himself and his own deficiencies. Never laid-back, which must only add to his feeling that he lacks coolness, Benji does a head count and worries about who will get to go to the beach in Randy’s car before Randy and Clive even arrive. I would have worried about the exact same thing and calculated ways for me not to get left out. It brings back memories that Randy has so much clout because he has the car. But Benji and Reggie, having to earn points where they can, keep their sliding doors open to all.

I wonder what Sag Harbor means for this community. It’s something they earned, yet they worry it can be taken away, which I think is evidenced by the binoculars in Benji and Reggie’s house. Where does this feeling of instability come from? Sag Harbor is also somewhere that they all belong (they grew up going there; the homes were in everyone’s families for more than one generation), yet there is always a feeling of not belonging. Benji says, “That first generation [of the Sag Harbor families] asked, Can we make it work? Will they allow us to have this?… Over the years I have learned that the sunrises and sunsets of that beach are rare and astonishing but I did not know this then.” I wonder what he has realized since then and what realization will take place this summer.

Benji’s father says to him and Reggie, “You’re men now.… You can take care of yourselves.” But it’s clear Benji doesn’t feel that way, and yet he is thrown into fending for himself. His father definitely has some kind of domineering influence over him. I wonder if this is related to how, at the beach, Benji never wades beyond where he can feel the bottom.

By the end of the chapter, I noticed how this group is one of mismatched boys, really thrown together because of circumstance. They’re not friends outside of Sag Harbor. It’s also interesting to me how Benji struggles with some performance of black authenticity. He is hyperaware of how he is perceived and whether he is cool or “black” enough. I don’t think Benji wants to be any kind of stereotyped blackness, but I think he feels pressure (maybe self-created) to emulate some type of authentic blackness. I love his explanation on page 62 for liking the Smiths, especially since I am a huge fan of this “moping” band that sent out “dispatches from the world of the pale and winnowed.” The line “The singers were faint, androgynous ghosts, dragging their too-heavy chains across the plains of misery, the gloomy moors of discontent, in search of relief” made me laugh out loud.

The malleability of identity, I thought, was all over this chapter. As Benji says, “It was unmistakable. Everybody was faking it.”

The third chapter sets up the everyday goings-on in Sag Harbor: how everyone passes the time, how Sag Harbor came to be, etc. As for Benji and Reggie’s routine, I laughed at Benji’s extended meditation on Thou Shalt Not Clean Thy Brother’s Soup Pot, because growing up, I remember doing that with my brother. You cleaned what you ate out of.

In this chapter we get the first taste of there being something amiss in the house. Benji is reluctant to tell his mother’s secretary that their power got shut off. He says, “What happened in the house stayed in the house, caroming off the walls and furniture and us, until it was absorbed or forgotten.” I think this is a moment of foreshadowing (dun dun dun!).

The story of Maude Terry and Sag Harbor on pages 77 to 78 interests me. Benji contemplates, “What incident put the idea in her head, what kind of day or evening did she have to make her hope and scheme, think up such a thing? That was one story not handed down.” What do you think made her think of such a thing?

I like how this rumination is then followed with Benji’s Moron’s Dilemma of being asked not only to steal but also to steal something that doesn’t exist (Rocky Road from Jonni Waffle for Mrs. Collins). Benji often delves into moment of deep thoughts only to be brought back to the real world and again wrestle with how to navigate it.

Benji thinks a lot about what Sag Harbor was and what it will be. On page 83, he muses about “the black sailors trudging home at the end of the day to Eastville, the direction I had just come from. I tipped my hat to ghosts as we passed each other.” Then on page 85, he thinks about the Sag Harbor of his earlier years and how it’s been changing: “For every disappearing winking whale [the bumper sticker that reads, I HAD A WHALE OF A GOOD TIME IN SAG HARBOR], a Jonni Waffle took its place.” Even in moments like this, Benji thinks about where he fits in the world, life, everything that has come and gone.

This chapter goes into more detail on how the boys perform their identities (Bobby tries to be a militant; Nick pretends he’s from the streets, which annoys Benji’s father, who is from the streets). The chapter also questions identity and the idea of an authentic blackness, I think. The boys wonder if Martine, owner of Jonni Waffle, is black, which has serious implications for the Head-Patting Incident. But then the comments NP makes to taunt Benji are so hilarious, from “It’s like lamb’s wool” to just “Nappy!”

Benji’s head is a whirlpool of rumination and overanalysis. I find it endearing and often laugh out loud at the thoughts that run through his brain. His description of calculatingly, accidentally running into Meg’s breast is very funny. Because it’s something you know every boy does.

When NP dishes out another pint of ice cream to take home, Benji thinks, “I heard Sidney Poitier’s voice in my head and in that crisp, familiar, so-dignified tone, he declared, ‘They think we steal, and because they think we steal, we must not steal.’ ” That is too funny. Then he is reminded of the New Coke Tragedy of ’85, when he tried to steal some cans of Coke from a party. Oh, Benji. He just can’t help but be awkward. And he will continue to be so as he figures out who he is. I remember being that way. Sometimes I’m not sure I’ve quite grown out of it.

What are your thoughts? I will have some more thoughts on Chapter 4 on Monday. And then on Chapters 5 and 6 a week from today.

—Janet Kim