It seems as though the magazine saved the best for last. Not only is this a gripping story of two young brothers—who are close and then drift apart and then come back together—the language of the story is astoundingly beautiful. I think probably the story is the best thing I’ve read in the New Yorker since I began this commentary two years ago. Unlike most TNY stories, I've put this one aside to read again later.
Benji and Reggie are upper middleclass black kids whose parents have a beach house in Sag Harbor. It’s the summer of 1985 and they are 15 and 14, old enough to be left alone while the parents go back to the city for work during the week. The boys hang out with some other boys who are in similar situations, and they’re all struggling to deal with the perceived conflicts in their class and their race, and they’re experimenting with both. The boys manage to get guns, but against the expectations of the reader these are BB guns, not Saturday-night specials or whatever, and BB guns are a pretty common hazard for kids everywhere, kids of all races. (Shoot, even I had a pellet gun at that age.) Benji is the good kid, although none of these boys is bad (at this point, anyway; the retrospective voice hints at troubles to come), and he resists the idea of a BB gun war. But the war becomes inevitable, as stupid an idea as it is, because the boys are incredibly bored. There is nothing else to do—nothing—and so this begins to sound like a good idea. The injury that results also seems inevitable, although it has twists that still make it surprising, and the resolution is also not quite what the reader expects. And so, it’s a thoroughly satisfying story for me.
But what makes it a great story, in my view, is the language. There’s a fresh gem in every paragraph. Benji and Reggie are described as more than Siamese twins as young boys, although they are 10 months apart in age. “Where is the surgeon gifted enough to undertake separating these hapless conjoined? Paging Doc Puberty, arms scrubbed, smocked to the hilt, smacking the nurses on the ass and well versed in the latest techniques. More suction! Javelin and shot-put—that’s about right.” And the parents come back to Sag Harbor every weekend. “The week was a vast continent for us to explore and conquer. Then suddenly we ran out of land.” One of the friends acquires a car. “Its fenders were dented and dimpled, rust mottled the frame in leprous clumps, and the inside smelled like hippie anarchists on the lam had made it their commune.” They use an old radio as target practice with the BB guns. “The radio made a sad ting, tottered in cheap suspense, and fell into the dirt.” I could go on and on. This is a truly wonderful story.
By the way, the magazine notes that Whitehead has a novel, "Sag Harbor," due out in April. I have no idea if this story is an excerpt from that novel--the title suggests that it might well be--but in any case this piece clearly stands on its own.
December 22 & 29, 2008: “The Gangsters” by Colson Whitehead.
[As with the Munro story in this issue, to read the whole thing you will need to register, but registration is free.]