Saturday, January 9, 2010

Sag Harbor: A Letter Forgotten

I love the whiteness of January. After all the holiday red and green and blue have been tucked away there is an appealing sleek brightness to the first 31 days, when the day light has a particular absence of color. Is it a coincidence that we have the tradition of the January White Sales, when sheets and linen go on sale at deep discounts, or are merchants simply tapping into the primal collective unconscious of whiteness? Hmm.

The frigid weather—-which is white itself in its starkness—-is my excuse for indulging in a little post-holiday burrowing before the year starts to pick up steam. I’m reading through more of the NY Times than I usually do. That included a little tidbit from Ben Yagoda, “The Perils of ‘Contact Me’,” an essay about how people contact writers to answer questions. In his case the questions are about Will Rogers, The New Yorker, and grammar, because of books he’s written. He’s not complaining about this, except maybe when it’s school kids who want him to write their papers.

This reminded me that I contacted an author last year, a letter I had completely forgotten about. Not to ask a question, just a fan letter. I wrote to Colson Whitehead after reading his novel Sag Harbor, about black teenage kids in the mid1980s summering in the black enclaves that their grandparents had staked out. I bought it because I spent two summers in Sag at that very same time crewing on the Schooner Appledore (which I’ve written about here). Sag was my town: The Tuck Shop, the Corner Bar, Canios, the American Hotel; these are serious flashbacks for me.

Janet Maslin called the book “sea-breeze buoyant” and it is. It’s narrated by Benji who recounts his summering rituals and working in a fictitious ice cream shop. I found it funny and charming, and just ate up Whitehead’s mastery of pop culture references. He captures the WTF moment of New Coke just right.

I was hoping that the Appledore might make an appearance in the book. It docked at the end of Main Street and might have been something the kids saw and commented on. But no.

But what finally drove me to take the time and write the letter and look for an address was his reference to the 1973 tv movie SSSSS. I saw it as a kid and the image of Dirk Benedict lying on the floor and morphing into a cobra SEARED into my brain. I have never met another human who saw this thing, and I was floored to see a reference to it in print.

Colson never responded to me. His website has no direct contact info, so I did snail mail to his publisher. I like to think he never got the letter. Now, Ben Yagoda, he’s got an email address, plain and easy to find. Maybe I’ll read his Will Rogers bio next.


scribbler50 said...

If e-mail had always been around, wouldn't it have been pure magic to establish a correspondence with some the all time greats?

For me... F. Scott (sober or not), Thomas Wolfe (his e-mails would've been 3,000 words long), P.G. Wodehouse (are his e-mails as witty as his stories?), O. Henry (would his e-mails come with a surprise ending?), any of the Bronte sisters (especially Emily no matter what she had to say), Conan Doyle and the great Charles Dickens! One can only imagine...

PS: Thoroughly enjoyed your post the other day, "In Praise of Southern Characters", and last night got to see your thoughts in action as Turner Classics ran "A Streetcar Named Desire". Still a powerful film after all these years.

scribbler50 said...

Correction... "In Praise of Southern (WOMEN) Characters"... sorry.

M.A.Peel said...

Hi Hath. We will have to console ourselves with the collections of correspondence from some of the greats.

Thanks for reading my Southern post, inveterate Yankee that I am.