Another surprise from an author who never writes the same novel twice.
Though Whitehead has earned considerable critical acclaim for his earlier work—in particular his debut (The Intuitionist, 1999) and its successor (John Henry Days, 2001)—he’ll likely reach a wider readership with his warmest novel to date. Funniest as well, though there have been flashes of humor throughout his writing. The author blurs the line between fiction and memoir as he recounts the coming-of-age summer of 15-year-old Benji Cooper in the family’s summer retreat of New York’s Sag Harbor. “According to the world, we were the definition of paradox: black boys with beach houses,” writes Whitehead. Caucasians are only an occasional curiosity within this idyll, and parents are mostly absent as well. Each chapter is pretty much a self-contained entity, corresponding to a rite of passage: getting the first job, negotiating the mysteries of the opposite sex. There’s an accident with a BB gun and plenty of episodes of convincing someone older to buy beer, but not much really happens during this particular summer. Yet by the end of it, Benji is well on his way to becoming Ben, and he realizes that he is a different person than when the summer started. He also realizes that this time in his life will eventually live only in memory. There might be some distinctions between Benji and Whitehead, though the novelist also spent his youthful summers in Sag Harbor and was the same age as Benji in 1985, when the novel is set. Yet the first-person narrator has the novelist’s eye for detail, craft of character development and analytical instincts for sharp social commentary.
Not as thematically ambitious as Whitehead’s earlier work, but a whole lot of fun to read.