Chapters 5 and 6 have some very sad moments involving families, I think. In Chapter 5, we get more of a look at Benji and Reggie’s parents, who never notice Benji’s swollen eye. The Coopers are a “Cosby family, good on paper.” But this characterization is immediately undermined by their father’s new nickname for Reggie. We see how brutish and mean he can be. He implies that he doesn’t like Benji’s new close haircut. This brief exchange between Benji and his dad reminds Benji of the many haircuts his father gave him. I found this part particularly bittersweet. Benji says, “The sound of the long, thin blades snipping against each other was the sound of his undivided attention.” I couldn’t help but think about how a child would want his or her father’s approval despite his shortcomings. Benji remembers the haircuts being perfect and then explains how he realizes they were really weird looking. Benji notices this most when he comes across his fifth-grade school photo. I love that the pane of photos is uncut. I think that the image of an uncut sheet of photos just says so much.
Benji describes what it’s like to be at the house with his parents. He listens: “I concentrated on the house noises, to see what I’d be getting into.… Things seemed okay out there.” I felt like I was there, too, with a feeling of dread for what might happen. The magic of Sag Harbor also comes out in this chapter. Benji says his mom gets younger in Sag. His father is known as a grilling legend. But this too is undercut by the rhythm of sounds that go with Benji’s dad making a drink. Benji’s dad is such a presence: “He was our talking head. The only channel we got.”
Finally, after Benji’s dad yells at his mom, Benji thinks, “Something happened to my mother in her life that she never defended or protected herself. That she never defended or protected us, when it was our turn. I don’t know what it was. I suppose it was the same thing that prevented me from defending or protecting her, once I was old enough.” I’m still figuring out what this thing might be. What do you think?
In Chapter 6, Benji devises a scheme to go to a concert for which he is underage. He thinks, “Since I’d come over time to believe that no one was particularly interested in what I had to say, I tended to mumble or talk fast in an attempt to help people more easily ignore me.” This again endears Benji to me. I think I’ve done the same thing. I remember once in high school getting on the elevator, which students weren’t supposed to ride unless they had permission. A teacher got on, and I gave her my best innocent grin and then looked at the ground like I was shy. She said, “You look legit,” and I mumbled something that sounded like “yeah.” That is neither here nor there, but I feel very close to Benji in these moments. The many times that Benji says or thinks, “I paid good money for this ticket,” also make me laugh. There are also some great joke misfires by Benji, such as “I read a book about Sagaponac by Honoré de Ballsack.” Benji, Benji, Benji.
There are some great geek and 80s references in these chapters. I love that Benji’s 20-sided die finds its way back no matter how many times he throws it away. I also remember the commercials with Phil Razzuto from the Money Store. (Were those commercials only in New York City?) Benji often imagines himself with superhero powers, such as when he thinks, “I heard Bobby thumping around upstairs so I sent a telepathic blast to make him hurry.”
While Benji waits for Bobby to come down from his room, Bobby’s grandfather tells Benji that he’s lucky to have all of this. There’s again this feeling of how important Sag Harbor is to the community. I think it sinks into Benji’s head even though he doesn’t notice right now.
Since Bobby got his car, our nerd Benji calls Bobby Chaotic Evil, according to the Dungeons and Dragons classification of inner natures. But Benji describes his uncle as Chaotic Good, “bucking the bourgie system, but daring and bighearted.” There are consequences for doing such a thing, for rebelling against the rules. And so Uncle Nelson is told never to come back to his father’s house. I found the scene with Uncle Nelson looking at his house so poignant and sad. Benji says, “This is where he wanted to be.”
I really love this book for its brilliant switching between teenage humor and quiet family tragedy. What do you guys think? Let’s finish reading it next week.