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I read this book at the end of summer, which is a good time to read it. Whitehead is one of America's rising literary stars, but this book will probably not go down as one of his best or one of his most important books. It may, however, go down as one of his most personal novels. It is an important glimpse into a sector of our society that not many of us may otherwise see. This novel flies in the face of the African-American experience portrayed within television or Hollywood movies. The teenagers portrayed within Sag Harbor are not the Barack Obama's, trying desperately to understand their role within black-white America. These are teenagers who are looking for their first kiss, a few dollars in their pocket from a summer job, or what to do on a hot, summer evening. Whitehead paints a wonderful picture of the community, the time, and the teenagers we all grew up with.
Benji Cooper is the loveable loser with whom we can identify. Benji and his brother Reggie are spending the summer mostly alone at their family's beach house at Sag Harbor. He is at that awkward age for many teenage boys when the desire to be cool and fit in doesn't always match reality. Everytime I thought Benji was making progress, something happened that left him short. Take the time when he gets his first kiss and seems about to get more than that and all goes wrong. Or his frustration at his summer job at Jonni Waffle. I went through some similar experiences only a few years earlier than Benji (the book is set in 1985), so many of the cultural references were familiar. Some reviewers have disliked this book because of its lack of plot, but I think they just don't get what Colson Whitehead is doing here. He is painting a portrait of the black teenagers who happen to belong to families with summer beach houses and seem to not quite fit into any culture (black or white). The TV dinners, BB gun fights, and the grilling father were just a few of the elements that made this such a captivating read. I can only suspect that Benji will return next summer to Sag Harbor a bit wiser if not any luckier.
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.
I finished reading Sag Harbor today, and I will recommend it to friends (and strangers too I guess via this post). It's a good read. Entertaining & insightful. If you grew in the 80's, there are a lot of pop culture references that will remind you of that fun (but odd) decade. Also, the family dynamics described in the novel are spot on - the reader is pulled into the 15-year-old protagonist's (awkward) shoes. This is a very solid read.
In his fourth novel, a coming-of-age story, Colson Whitehead employs the technique of autobiographical fiction as he recalls his boyhood summers in Sag Harbor, New York in Sag Harbor: A Novel. It is 1985 and Benji and his brother, Reggie, are 15 and 14 respectfully. They are part of an African-American contingent of middle-class and affluent families of the Talented Tenth persuasion who are second and third generation summer home owners; who are doctors and lawyers and other noble professions who send their kids to private schools while building trust funds.
Benji, who now wants to known as Ben, and Reggie's posse of testosterone filled teen-age boys' main focus is what to do with their summer; where they will wander, the beach or in town; their mode of transportation, bike, car or foot; will they get a job, at Burger King or the ice cream parlor, and, of course, what girls are available. Awkward, immature, unsure of themselves, learning to navigate adolescence and teen-age angst, these young Black males are in their environment, yet gauging their surroundings, ever aware of the subtle racism that pervades their existence. Benji weaves between two worlds: in one it is his white private school, privileged classmates with their rock music and the other, his summers with "the brothers" who constantly quote Grandmaster Flash and black allegiance. It is the "twoness" of which his favorite writer, WEB Dubois speaks. He also contends with his family dynamics headed by a bully of a father who wields a heavy hand to cover for his insecurities and need to be constantly assured he belongs in this world into which he married.
Colson deftly wields his pen to portray the flavor and times with a 80s soundtrack that will have one humming and reminiscing about where you were in the summer of 1985. The pace was slow, at times laborious, in tune with the lazy, hazy days of summer resort living with the day-today activities therewith. I appreciated Whitehead writing this book, which was a long time in the making. More often than not, we are presented with stories of boys in the hood with hard knock lives. This story is a picture of another side of African-American existence that is not exposed enough, even to other Blacks. My adolescent and teen-age summers were spent at a cabin in the San Jose hills area of California where members of my father's Black businessmen's group met for the 4th of July and other outings and though it was the 60s, I can resonate somewhat with the author's experience. I recommend this book to fans of Colson Whitehead and those who want to view another slice of African-American life.