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Short Reviews

Sag Harbor
Colson Whitehead
Harvill Secker, 288pp, £12.99

It’s rare to come across a coming-of-age novel as polished as Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor.

Whitehead captures very precisely the angst-ridden 15-year-old Benji as bright, awkward and confused. Along with his brother Reggie, he spends his days as the only black kid in a plush Manhattan school, being mistaken for the sons of an African diplomat in their preppy blazers and ties, as “why else would Black people dress like that?”

Benji’s long, formative summers are no less baffling for him in an upper-middle-class black enclave, where he and his friends try to lose their white influences and immerse themselves, awkwardly and unconvincingly, in black teenage culture; “It was unmistakable.  Everyone was faking it.”

Sag Harbor is full of interesting and acute satire on racial tensions: one anecdote about “fro-touching” addresses “the strange compulsion that [drives] white people to touch black hair”.

But what is lost in this self-possessed look at adolescence is a deeper exploration of what lies beneath the surface of family dysfunction and the struggles of reinvention.

By Liana Wood

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg
Dubravka Ugresic
Canongate, 256pp, £14.99

Virtually every folklore tradition has its old crones.

Baba Yaga, who lends her name to the title of this book, is the Slavic version of the old witch, and probably the most famous. But in the first two-thirds of the novel, which consists of two seemingly unrelated short stories, she’s never mentioned by name.

In the first section, a Croatian author visits Bulgaria on behalf of her aged mother; in the second, three elderly women take an unexpectedly eventful spa holiday together, encountering gambling success and sudden death on the golf course in a world where “the devil is the only opponent of God himself who is, as we know, also a man”.

These two examinations of old age and femininity are sewn together by the novel’s third section, purportedly a letter to the book’s editor from a scholar providing a “Baba Yaga for beginners”.

It’s a shame that Ugresic resorts to such a hackneyed, unnecessary trick – the message that old crones are the product of “long-lived, labyrinthine, fertile, profoundly misogynistic but also cathartic work of the imagination” is expressed with humour, anger and eloquence in the first two sections.

By Alyssa McDonald

The Unknown Knowns
Jeffrey Rotter
Jonathan Cape, 272pp, £12.99

Donald Rumsfeld skulks within the pages of Jeffrey Rotter’s debut novel. It’s not just the title. Through his tale of two deluded Americans, Jim Rath and Agent Les Diaz, Rotter takes a surreal swipe at the Bush administration and its dubious anti-terror tactics.

Obsessive comic book geek Rath believes he has discovered a fantasy kingdom, Nautika, at the bottom of hotel swimming pools, while Diaz is an unwittingly hilarious, unstable Homeland Security agent who’s been demoted to scouring public swimming areas for terrorist activity.

Both men are ridiculous, and the consequences of their entanglement are brilliantly comic thanks to Rotter’s keen eye for the absurd (which has also earned him every kind of comparison – Kaufmanesque, Vonnegutesque, Pynchonesque).

But Rotter has a startlingly original turn of phrase, especially in the mouth of the eccentric Rath (“Morning came like sharks”). And although the narrative occasionally lapses into farce, Rotter rebalances it, ultimately telling the poignant story of two lonely men, convinced of their missions to the point of insanity.

By Sophie Elmhirst

American Rust
Philipp Meyer
Simon and Schuster, 384pp, £12.99

American Rust seems uncannily well-timed.

Meyer’s first novel is set in a decaying Pennsylvanian town, once bustling with industry, now burdened by unemployment. It’s a vision of recession, a long way from Wall Street.

The story follows two characters, Isaac and Poe, best friends pitted against the tragic inevitability of life in a sad, lost town. Isaac tries to flee, and on his way the boys get caught in a chance, brutal encounter.

Meyer has created a desperate, tragic narrative, depicting with poetic economy the beauty of hills and rivers; a lush landscape underwritten by desolation. His writing glints with sharp dialogue, and he displays an almost virtuosic ability to change mode, from thought to voice, from colloquialism to lyrical description.

But Meyer’s triumph isn’t simply that of a story-teller – although he is masterful, driving through the narrative at an addictive pace. It is primarily the ability to occupy minds, twisting from character to character, allowing their thoughts to animate action and bring it dazzlingly to life.

By Sophie Elmhirst

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rock bottom