Colson Whitehead burst onto the literary scene a decade ago with his first novel, "The Intuitionist," an otherworldy tale of race and intrigue in a city resembling New York that critics compared favorably with Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man."
Young, gifted, and black, Whitehead followed that sparkling debut with several more well-received books, including "The Colossus of New York," a collection of essays that pays homage to his home city, and the followup novels "John Henry Days" and "Apex Hides the Hurt," which are complex allegories on modern corporate life, where racial issues still overshadow everyday existence. But now Whitehead, a Harvard graduate and MacArthur grant recipient, has shifted gears to show a softer side. "Sag Harbor" is a novel too, but it's also a loving look back at what it was like to spend his summers hanging out with other teenage blacks in a seaside Long Island resort town. The novel may be short on plot and message, but it's long on mood and lyricism, recreating the long languid days spent relaxing with friends and family in the 1980s.
In a published interview, Whitehead compared his summers in Sag Harbor's minority enclave with the famed African-American getaway in Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard, a place that has attracted Boston's minority elite for more than a century. Sag Harbor has a similar, though more recent, history. "The people who really got the community going -- my grandparents' generation -- were from Manhattan, Brooklyn, New Jersey. Sag Harbor was close, there was a block of land available in the '30s and '40s for them to get a foothold. They weren't prevented from establishing a foothold, i.e., they weren't run out of town. Most people have heard of the black resort community on Oak Bluffs, in Martha's Vineyard, and are surprised that another place like that exists. Well, you know, there are a lot of black people in the country, and we're spread out...."
Whitehead, a writer who provides insights on what it means to be black in the new millennium, will read from ‘‘Sag Harbor’’ Thursday, May 7, at 7 p.m. at Porter Square Books, Cambridge.