[Spoiler alert, from the start.]
There’s a famous quote from Alfred Hitchcock which goes something like: “if you show the audience a gun in Act 1, it has to be fired in Act 3”. Nothing should be superfluous. So when, about mid-way through “Sag Harbor”, Colson Whitehead’s main character references that one day he’ll be handling a real gun and “one of us will be dead”, I spent the rest of the book waiting to see how that turned out and who would die.
But he never showed us that future. It was, in the end, a throwaway. So why have it in there at all? On it’s own, you may argue it’s no big thing; but it was there, it set expectations, it nagged away at me. The closest he came to resolving it was a random new character inserted into the last chapter – a real ‘bad boy’ – perhaps as an example of what the Sag Harbor adolescents could become. Or would become. But this character jarred too much, was too artificial; a device which detracted from what could a been a more powerful and poignant ending.
Was the missing ‘smoking gun’ enough to spoil the book? Of course not. But in any event, “Sag Harbor” isn’t a patch on “The Nikel Boys”. For me it meanders too much, goes on too long; the pace is uneven and not as insistent as it could be. When you stop caring what happens to the characters, well…
My copy’s cover boasts “the ultimate coming-of-age tale”. I don’t think so. Not even close. But it’s not a bad book; far from it. As I’ve said in other reviews, Whitehead writes really well – it’s just that this isn’t his best, and because of that could be so much better.