Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Review: Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

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. Ultimately I couldn't get past the somewhat disjointed chapters/scenes, the wordiness, and the heavy nostalgia. I'm sure others will have better luck but I'm just lukewarm about it.


  1. Bummer! Great review though. I have this one sitting here, but I have to admit that I'm not as anxious after reading your review.

  2. This one sounds really good; i've been seeing it around. Thanks for the post.


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