Benji, one of the only black kids at an elite prep school in Manhattan, tries desperately to fit in, but every summer, he and his brother, Reggie, escape to the East End of Sag Harbor, where a small community of African American professionals has built aworld of is own.
I am glad I read this in the dead of winter, because Whitehead evokes such a warm, sunny tone to the narrative, along with a hefty dose of humor. He is a good writer, a deft wordsmith, but he can get excessively wordy and off track, bogging the story down, in places.
It makes an interesting contrast to Black Swan Green, which I read recently, it is another coming of age novel, set in working-class England, during the same time-period, but that one was relentlessly bleak, but also leaner and more focused.
Especially toward the beginning, the book fumbles a little to strike the right tone. The author clearly wants to make a sharp distinction between the slangy voices of his characters and the lyrical, erudite voice of the narrator. When it works, it works well, but sometimes the narrative voice strains a little too hard to impress.
This is a classic coming of age novel set in Sag Harbor, the African-American neighbor to the Hamptons. Benji Cooper and his brother Reggie are in their teens during the summer of 1985, the summer that their parents allow them to be out at their summer place without any adult supervision during the week. Benji and Reggie have always been a unit but this momentous summer sees them become two very different and separate people even while they still share the same peer age group (they aren't twins but close) and friends. The book follows Benji, the more cautious and thoughtful brother as he tries to be the voice of reason (when the boys cook up schemes like shooting at each other with pump BB guns), gets a job (which forever kills his desire for ice cream), looks on as his friends land two of the only girls around, and just generally goes about being a kid with one year of his exclusive, majority white prep-school high school behind him.
Benji is a good narrator to introduce the unique entity that is Sag Harbor because, in a sense, he is an outsider in the all-black community despite his ethnicity, trying hard to negotiate the things he thinks others just instinctively know. Throughout the summer, he comes to understand that everyone is at sea as he is, especially in the foreign country that is teenage-dom. He is mocked for some of his preferences: stealing Cokes from a party because he is trying to fend off having to drink New Coke, leaving the radio on the lite FM channel and other such social faux pas. And he must navigate the tensions swirling in his own family. With his new and not always entirely welcome severing from being "Benji 'n Reggie" and his parents barely seeming to tolerate each other, Benji clings to the known in this summer community where he's spent every summer of his life. There are also a few scenes with Benji at his school or interacting with his school friends but they are a much smaller portion of the book than his Sag Harbor time and they are only tangentially connected as the two worlds never meet. Spanning just the one summer, the book doesn't really have a grand climax, more a series of smaller ones, ending with the end of summer and everyone leaving to resume their lives in the city.
Since my family has a summer place that has been in the family forever, a place that defines us as much as any other place on earth, I was looking forward to reading this, thinking there would be some similarities. And there were a few. But they were fewer than expected. Did I not really relate to Benji because he is male and African-American and I am neither? I don't know. I suspect that we actually have more in common than not (cautious, clinging to the expected and to tradition) but for some reason, I just didn't connect with his character. It took me a very long time to be engaged enough with the book to resist putting it down at every opportunity. The writing was good and the premise should have captured me but somehow, Sag Harbor and I just missed each other. I'm sure others will have better luck but I'm just lukewarm about it.
The writing style takes a little to get used to but once I was hooked the writing didn't matter only the story did. At times it seemed as if one tale had little or nothing to do with the next but as you step back and look at the story as a whole everything is there for a reason.
I quickly grew attached to Benji and short of a few incidents he seems to be a really good kid, just trying to find his place between two societies. The white prep-school kids he's with at school and his black Sag Harbor friends that he shares his summers with. We are also taken into the 80's with catch phrases like "Dag" and the music that is so often referred to in this book. And anyone who's been a teenager can relate to the situations that Benji finds himself in.
Overall this is one of the best books I've read recently.
Sag Harbor covers the teenage summers of Benji ("Call me Ben") as he navigates those painful years of both discovering and inventing who you are, where a single failure can allow others to define who you are without your permission. In the book, Whitehead creates a sympathetic character who is real, who we can associate with, who we can project ourselves onto. And that is his success. By the end of the book, we are thinking not of Sag Harbor but of our own childhood, of our own "beach house" where we escaped our lives and could be who we wanted to be, but ended up being even more of ourselves.
Structurally, Sag Harbor is not driven by plot. Although it follows the events of a summer, this is more a device for us to learn about Benji, for Whitehead to show the arc of self-discovery through the events. This can - at times - slow down the novel. But the author's eloquently sparse style keeps it from becoming a burden. He has gathered anecdotes and arranged them in an order that lets us see the progression without showing us the end.
A good book.
Sag Harbor is also a coming of age story, the tale of a boy becoming a man and how he copes with all of the new expectations placed upon him and disappointed when he doesn’t simple ease into the mold of how a man is supposed to be when he becomes a man. His braces make him feel childish, his skinny frame makes him appear young, and he is not that successful with the ladies. Benji is surrounded by Sag Harbor friends, each with their own distinct personality. To just give a sampling of a few, there’s NP, for whom life is a joke and an elaborate story; Randy, who is the top man for a while when he gets his car and lords it over everyone; and Clive, who is that one ‘cool’ one, the can-do-no-wrong one.
The adventures and misadventures of this group of boys is chronicled in the book. We’re taken through a series of moments in their lives: when they all went gun fighting and Benji wound up wounded, the group trying to sneak into a concert, and the eventual teenage meeting of girls and getting girlfriends for the first time. These group adventures stand apart from Benji’s own singular moments, his own personal experiences that shape him into an awkward but compelling figure. He is the product of a strict father, a bad afro, and one hand holding that was to be his only contact with the opposite sex for a long, long time.
I really enjoyed this book because it was a slice-of-life piece. Whitehead put such a humorous spin on the trials and tribulations of being a teenager that I couldn’t help but be charmed by the bad and the good. You really can feel Benji’s pain, even as you laugh about the unfortunate nature of his life. I think it is also inspirational the way that Benji doesn’t become disheartened by all of it. Despite all that has happened to him, all of the flaws he finds in his person, he never retreats.
What else is great about Sag Harbor? I like the insight the book gives into race relations in the 80s era in which it is set. The youngsters of Sag Harbor express a mild dislike for the rich white Hamptonites that border their summer areas, more for what they represent than anything related to skin color. The boys watch the whites tour Sag Harbor as reluctant visitors with views as misguided as the views the white’s may too hold. This difference shows how a person is the culmination of their environment and experiences, of their influences as much as their own inherent personality.
I really did enjoy reading this book and recommend it to anyone looking for a book that isn’t overwhelming with adventure, but remains interesting and captivating throughout. You’ll laugh, you’ll get angry, and you might even get sad from time to time. But you’ll definitely never get bored.
Benji’s summer adventures include his first kiss, BB gun battles, crafting the most grammatically correct insults with his friends, and his first summer job at Jonni Waffle Ice Cream. Pop culture references (from “The Cosby Show” and “Mad Max” reruns on Cinemax, to the horror known as New Coke) and a boom-box full of music flow like warm breezes through the book, perfectly capturing the period. It also helps that Benji has a brother named Reggie. I always like books with characters with whom I share a name!
Don’t look for a lot of plot or attempt to mine for deeper meaning in all this. Dark shadows do appear around the edges of Sag Harbor, but for the most part this book is entertainment, a fine writer taking us on vacation with him for a stroll down memory’s boardwalk. Grab something cold, kick back on your favorite beach towel, and enjoy.
There is a lot of hype surrounding "Sag Harbor" and its author Colson Whitehead. Admittedly, this is the first book of Whitehead's that I've read, but "Sag Harbor" definitely doesn't live up to the pub its been getting.
Described as a novel, but should be more accurately categorized as a series of semi-autobiographical vignettes -- a coming of age kind of a story about a middle-class African American boy growing up in the 80s who spends his summers at the Sag. Most of it is typical growing-up stuff, awkward encounters with girls, trying to get into nightclubs, scamming beer off of everyone and anyone. It is a Superbad kind of a story, but not quite as amusing.
The African American angle is superficially explored, but I don't think that kind of angle would work here anyways. The family at the center of the stories are middle-class, a real-life Cosby Show family. Identity is a primary theme, as it usually is in these kind of coming of age stories.
Overall, "Sag Harbor" is a decent read if somewhat over-hyped. It is obvious that the stories are loosely based on his own life which partially explains how Whitehead is successful in writing with such lucidity.
Whitehead explores the values and differences of middle class African-American culture in the mid 80's (although the time-frame is set marginally before the rise of the phrase African-American). In Sag, Whitehead's auto-biographical style offers a palpable sense of the teen-gangly, boy angst (back before their was angst as popularized by the scrubby clean waifs of the mid to late 90s.) In Sag, the prose reveals experiences and memories that can easily transcends race but are rooted in the experience of the same. The descriptions are real and identifiable even to those of us who don't share the racial identity so important to the setting. The shared sense of gender, class identity, and power struggles from this 2009 novel are retold fresh but familiar, crisp as the first summer nights. No chapter captures this more than the "Heyday of Dag," a musing on the word "dag" and the playful and insulting banter aimed squarely at and by teenage boys in search of friendship and quarry.
Similar to one of Whitehead's earlier and notable works, _The Intuitionist_, readers are treated to one of fictions' greatest writers on class in America, especially the experienced of middle-class America.
This book is a delightful read, no matter what age you are. Mr. Whitehead has captured a summer vacation on Sag Harbor for Benji, (the main character), his family and friends so well that I feel like I was there. The summer of 1985 for the Community of African-Americans and particularly life for the teens and tweens at Sag Harbor was funny, thoughtful and a re-read for me.
Recommended: It's really funny, too. Absolutely recommended for anyone who grew up with a summer town.
My book club was pretty much unanimous in hating this book; I blame myself for not preparing them for the lack of a cohesive plot. I really enjoyed Whitehead's language, his vivid imagery, metaphors and sly humor. I also enjoy the musical and other pop-culture allusions. But I came away feeling that the work overall was very slight. I'd like to read one of Whitehead's other books that has a tighter structure.
"You have a fucked-up haircut and everyone knows you have a fucked-up haircut. But no one says anything. You don't know you have a fucked-up haircut, or know it and can't admit it. Until one day you face the fact that you have a fucked-up haircut and you get a new one and everyone says, Good job, as if they'd been waiting for it. As if they cared."
...you've earned my attention for the next 300+ pages.
More TK on Friday at RB:
The book is more a series of very closely connected short stories than a proper novel, which may go a little ways to explaining this lack of urgency. I love Whitehead's writing, though - nearly every sentence is one I wish I'd written, and his narrator, Benji, is one of my people - nerdy, introverted, endlessly dying of shame, endlessly at the heart of an ordinary thing gone utterly and irrevocably pear-shaped - and is an excellent guide to the world of adolescence. Benji's at the center of a world that's falling apart, that point in everyone's life where the way things are starts to give way to the ever-increasing pace of change that is adult life, and Whitehead nails that unease, that sense of crumbling and loss. Nearly every sentence is one I wish I could have written myself.