Sag Harbor: A Novel

by Colson Whitehead

Hardcover, 2009

Call number





Doubleday (2009), Edition: First Edition, 288 pages


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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member msf59
It is 1985, and Benji Cooper is fifteen. Every summer, the Cooper family flees Manhattan for the Hamptons. They are part of a small community of African American professionals, who vacation on the island. This endearing coming of age novel documents one summer, as Benji and his friends, enjoy dances, BB-Gun fights, checking out girls and working their various fast-food jobs.
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.
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LibraryThing member george.d.ross
I really enjoyed this. This window into the lives of upper class black kids isn't something one sees a lot of in literature, and Whitehead handles it with a light, deft touch. The strongest (and funniest, most charming) parts of the book are when the narrator illustrates how black kids struggle to project a cohesive identity in the face of conflicting messages from parents and peers and pop culture and society; the stuff where the kids are all trying to figure out the new, hip, "black" handshakes and totally failing is one of the most endearing sequences. The struggles here may not be weighty on the level of slavery or civil rights, but they are struggles nonetheless.

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.
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LibraryThing member weird_O
Grabby it isn't. [Sag Harbor] is a low-key teen-hood memoir. I quite enjoyed it. The subtle observations of a 15-year-old who is trying to sort out the endless parental admonitions, the pull of friends, and the undercurrent of social chaos. Assessing and reassessing family relations and traditions. Being responsible. Transitioning. So many moments that had me thinking, "Oh yeah, oh yeah. I remember that." Interpreting the language of relationships. Nobody got arrested, no knockdown drag-out fights. A few "Darwin Award" escapades (having a BB gun combat, for example).

I think some readers were let down by the absence of tumultuous conflicts or harrowing crises. But I liked it for that. I'll give it two thumbs up.
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LibraryThing member Carmenere
Author, Colson Whitehead, skillfully takes the reader back to the summer of 1985 in the resort town of Sag Harbor, Long Island. Our escort on the journey is Benji Cooper a likeable and semi-autobiographical teenager caught between manhood and braces. Benji faces problems and situations that are universal and timeless - Family, peers and the personal pressures he puts upon himself, all with good natured humor. I had hoped that this novel would be different from anything I've read and it did not disappoint. It is a book that, at first glance, appears to be lighthearted and frivolous but actually explores much more serious themes. Sag Harbor is a delightful read and you will find yourself laughing out loud as Benji comments on the same pop culture you may also remember. Sadly, summer must come to an end and so must this novel but it leaves a vivid picture of a very special place and time in Benji Cooper's life. Highly recommended and can be found in a bookstore near you in April… (more)
LibraryThing member coconutmacaroon
The year is 1985 and Benji is 15 years old. He is spending the summer with his family in the Sag Harbor area of Long Island. Along with his younger brother Reggie, he has the house to himself during the week while his parents are working in the city. By turns hilarious and poignant, this coming of age story will appeal to anyone who remembers growing up in the mid ‘80s.… (more)
LibraryThing member Alirambles
In Sag Harbor, author Colson Whitehead revisits 1985 in the beach community where his family summered from New York City every year. The adult narrator, Benji, looks back on his teen years with about fifty percent nostalgia and fifty percent, "What were we thinking?!"

I loved the narrative voice, which frequently made me laugh. Loved the way the book was structured, starting out as surface-level as a sit-com and then deepening, almost as if the narrator waited to get to know the reader a bit before revealing his family's pock marks.

Occasionally, the prose veers off onto a tangent so long that it threatens never to return. I've been known to stop reading highly esteemed writers (cough John Irving cough, cough) for this reason alone, but Whitehead pulls it off. (More on Worducopia)
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LibraryThing member ImBookingIt
This book is a wonderfully written coming of age novel. The main character is Benji, a 15 year old upper middle class black kid. He and his younger brother Reggie are spending the summer mostly unsupervised at their parents beach house in Sag Harbor.The author does a very good job in evoking the time period of 1985. For me, the book was a contrast of the familiar and foreign-- I remember new coke and the fashions, but beach houses and the art of an afro were new to me. I understand family conflict but not the relationships between teen boys.At the beginning of the book, we are introduced to the brothers as being virtual twins, but by the time we come to the summer in question, they have drifted apart, even choosing to attend different schools. We get a look at how this relationship changes, and what being brothers really means to them. The rest of the family is largely kept in the background. We get glimpses of the older sister, and of the relationship between the mother and father. These are not smooth relationships, but we really only see them in the impact on Benji and Reggie, such as when they accidentally find a list their mother made, outlining their father's faults (and there are some big ones on the list).We also see the challenges within their group of peers in Sag Harbor. Some trick of demographics caused there to be virtually no girls within their age group. Watching the interactions between these boys on the edge of being men was interesting. Each of them has his own journey that summer, but they are interwoven as well.The story was narrated by Benji as an adult, looking back on his childhood. Most of the time, the narration is unobtrusive, which made the occasional glimpses we got of the grown Ben more powerful. We read about the friends' mostly innocent adventures with BB guns that summer, then Ben mentions that later encounters with guns were more serious, and talks of the loss of friends. One thing that hasn't come through in this review is that the book is funny, really funny. Whitehead has a light touch which keeps the more serious issues from overwhelming his entertaining look at day to day life. The descriptions of Benji's job at the ice cream parlor and details about the grammatical patterns of their cursing are just a few of the parts that had me laughing while reading.… (more)
LibraryThing member lg4154
This book was a quirky and funny book. The language was a bit strong and times, but it was still a good read. His book definitely brings you back to 1985.
LibraryThing member whjensen
Do you have that special place from your childhood? The one that will always be your first love? For Colson Whitehead, in his "autobiographical" novel Sag Harbor, this place is his family's beach house on Long Island.

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.
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LibraryThing member bruchu
A Slightly Less Humourous Superbad

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.
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LibraryThing member readingrat
Colson Whitehead calls this his "autobiographical fourth novel" and in it he takes the reader back to the Sag Harbor he remembers from the mid 80s. The story is all about fitting in. Our protagonist, Benji, comes from a Cosby-esc family; is one of a few kids-of-color in a private New York Prep school; and spends his summers at Sag Harbor. The book is composed of a series of short vignettes that focus in on Benji's coming-of-age during one Sag Harbor summer. I would recommend this book for book clubs since it raises many issues that I feel would spark some interesting discussions.… (more)
LibraryThing member stonelaura
Whitehead writes with an intelligent, funny, insightful way about family summers on the east end of Long Island. It's the 1980's and Benji and his friends spend their time carousing, crusing, creating waffle cones and discovering what's cool. Like a grown-up "The Watsons Go To Birmingham" these coming-of-age vignettes detail a close-knit society with a sharp focus.… (more)
LibraryThing member Justjenniferreading
We are introduced to Benji and his family as they make their annual summer long trek out to Sag Harbor. The community of the upper/upper middle class African Americans who want to have their own summer place, just like their white counterparts.

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.
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LibraryThing member morbidromantic
Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead is the semi-autobiographical story of a young boy named Benji and his summers spent in the New York summer town of Sag Harbor. Benji is a young African American struggling to fit into a world that he straddles varied sides of. As an African American, he doesn’t fit into the white prep school world that populates the school he attends, but he also defies African American expectations that confront him as he spends his summers in Sag Harbor. Benji is an avid player of Dungeons and Dragons, loves Bauhaus and Siouxsie and the Banshees, and reads Fangoria magazine. In short, Benji has GREAT taste. I found a kindred spirit in Benji because of his interests… I love horror movies and The Smiths. Yet, where I saw a similarity between us, I also found a great and important difference. No one ever looked at me strangely for my interests, whereas Benji’s were atypical for a young African American male of the time.

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.
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LibraryThing member rmharris
This “autobiographical fourth novel” is the story of 15-year-old Benji Cooper’s three, largely unsupervised, months living with his younger brother in an all-black enclave of Long Island’s Sag Harbor. Benji is a classic 80s nerd, down to his love for Dungeons & Dragons and (the original) Star Wars.

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.
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LibraryThing member bikesandbooks
A coming of age tale spans the early to late teen-hood young man experiences as found in the summer wonderland of Sag Harbor, NY.

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.
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LibraryThing member chris227
A great read. Discusses tough issues such as race and family dysfunction but with such a wondeful humor you want to continue reading on. This book crosses generations, race, and gender as it tells its story of adolescence in such a relatable fashion. Anyone who remembers the 80's will find humor in the classic references to such things as 'the new coke" and swanson dinners. A wonderful read!… (more)
LibraryThing member Suuze
I'm sorry I can't finish this book - advance copy or not. I read half of it and feel as if I'm simply wasting my time now, since I have no interest in it. The language made me uncomfortable, and I couldn't identify with any of the characters. I tried, because I like the author's style, but at this point it's simply a waste of my time - and I absolutely *hate* not finishing a book.However, I'm moving on to a book I can truly enjoy.… (more)
LibraryThing member whitreidtan
The back cover copy of my ARC (Advance Reading Copy) says that Colson Whitehead is "one of the most acclaimed writers in America." This could indeed be true but I had never heard of Whitehead before although in browsing his previous books, I do recognize one of the titles. Does this mean I'm completely out of the loop or is it more indicative that his books are not generally books that I pick up on a whim. If the latter, after reading this one, I can say that they still probably won't be on my "must acquire list." This particular book, billed as his Autobiographical Fourth Novel, intrigued me when I read the plot synopsis distilled down to teaser form but it never grabbed me the way I had hoped.

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.
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LibraryThing member RachelWeaver
You know the Seinfeld parody of the J. Peterman catalog? Those travelogues of inanimate objects obsessively detailed to the point of hilarity? That's kind of what this book is like: an absurd, obsessively detailed, romaticized travelogue of human folly. And I honestly mean that in a good way. The man can write the hell out of a sentence, and though he is using the rose-colored glasses we often use to view our pasts, you can tell by the prosaic subjects he chooses--New Coke, Swanson TV dinners, the grammar of teenage insults--that the tint isn't hiding any flaws exactly, they're just putting a slight haze over the proceedings. The juxtaposition of the elaborate detail and the mundane subjects generally results in both insight and hilarity.A standout passage describing holding hands for the first time with a girl at a roller rink:"We were out there forever. How does one measure infinity in a roller rink? You can test the universe by asking questions--how many mirrored tiles on disco balls shooting how many pure white streaks across the walls and floors, how many ball bearings clacking into each other like agitated molecules in how many polyurethane wheels, how many inkblot colonies of bacteria blooming unchecked in the toe-ward gloom of how many rented skates. But let's say this notion of chintzy roller-rink infinity is best expressed by the number two. Two people, two hands, and two songs, in this case, 'Big Shot' and 'Bette Davis Eyes.'"My complaint about this book is that I suspect that it is the victim of the post-James Frey world of publishing. Everyone's too paranoid to publish a memoir these days that uses any sort of creative license, and so this got published as a novel. As a novel, it's a 4-star book. As a memoir, it would have been 5 stars. There are different rules, different plotting techniques required of a novel, and this just doesn't come up to meet those expectations. As a series of remembrances, a soliloquy on growing up and finding yourself when you don't fit into the pre-defined rules of the world forced on you, this book excels. But there is no real plot or story arc, no strong enough tension pulling this together as a novel. Obviously I don't know how much of this self-described autobiographical novel was fictionalized, but I have a pretty strong feeling that not much would need to be changed to call it a memoir and perhaps throw a disclaimer about faulty memory and protecting identities at the front of the book. What best summarizes this book is a passage in which the narrator describes his reaction to his aunt selling the house that he spent summers in as a child: "I was appalled, but you know me. I was nostalgic for everything big and small. Nostalgic for what never happened and nostalgic about what will be, looking forward to looking back on a time when things got easier."… (more)
LibraryThing member delphica
Love! I admit it, I'm a sucker for coming-of-age stories written by people who are about my age, because I delight in being able to sync up my own touchstones with those mentioned in the book. That's like the height of vanity, right? New Coke! Tower Records! Anyway, this is, from what I understand, a novel drawing significantly upon autobiography, and recounts the summer of a 15 year old teen spent in a middle-class vacation enclave on Long Island in 1985. It has the usual summer elements: beach town, summer job, childhood friends, grilling and bonfires and all the things that inspire and annoy people when they are 15.

Grade: A
Recommended: It's really funny, too. Absolutely recommended for anyone who grew up with a summer town.
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LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
Great use of language. I had read John Henry's Days but found this book much more engaging. His chapter about the house and the connection to music was great. I read a couple of negative reviews but these seemed to be people that just didn't get it or really shouldn't be reading books like this. Although he goes off on tangents, if you stick with it you will be rewarded. I am glad I gave Whitehead another chance and will go back and read his other work… (more)
LibraryThing member drewsof
A view to history is not what Whitehead appears to be aiming for with this book. Instead, this is a story of young men being, well, young men. Any 30-years-later resonance that comes with reading the book today, well, that's because of today. It's good to know that the struggles of today's teens feel like the struggles of teens back then - and it's not-so-good to know that the broader struggles of society are still pretty much the same. But if things do stay the same, that means that summers will always be a refuge for kids and a time to worry about nothing other than figuring themselves out. And when authors like Whitehead tell those stories, well, I can think of no greater way to spend a hot summer weekend than kicking back and cracking the covers.

More TK on Friday at RB:
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LibraryThing member mabroms
When you're finished laughing, you look up to discover that Whitehead took you through a lot of territory and was further below the surface than you thought.
LibraryThing member byebyelibrary
This is easily the best audio book I have listened to this year. Mirren Willis was born to this role, his subtle wry tone perfectly matched to the material. I laughed out loud at least a dozen times.I feel this novel has been misunderstood by the critics. Whitehead is a novelist with too much integrity to churn out a rote coming of age novel. Too many historical novels are about current times dressed in retro fashion. This is a novel that is unflinchingly loyal to the lived past that gave it life. It is a very rare thing to witness nowadays.… (more)




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