SAG HARBOR by Colson Whitehead

Book Quote:

“We were a Cosby family, good on paper, that was the lingo.  Father a doctor, mother a lawyer.  Three kids, prep-schooled, with clean fingernails and nice manners.  No imperial brownstone, but our Prewar Classic 7 wasn’t too shabby, squeezing us tight in old elegant bones.  Did we squirm?  Oh so quietly.”

Book Review:

Reviewed by Mary Whipple (MAY 23, 2009)

Colson Whitehead’s newest “novel” is not strictly a novel at all.  A book that he himself refers to as his “Autobiographical Fourth Novel,” it features a family that resembles his own—middle-class, upwardly mobile, and well-educated—a New York City-based family that spends summers at their vacation home in Sag Harbor, on Long island, “in the heart of the Hamptons.”   Sag Harbor in 1985, the time frame of the action, has a large African-American summer community which owns compact homes on the beach, and a white summer community which lives uphill, with larger homes and panoramic views.  For Benji, the fifteen-year-old main character, “There was summer, and then there was the rest of the year…It didn’t matter what went on during the rest of the year.  Sag Harbor was outside the rules.”  

At home in New York City, Benji is part of a prep school culture that has so few black students that when he walks to school wearing the required blazer and tie, he is often taken to be the child of a U. N. ambassador.   In Sag Harbor, however, Benji and his brother Reggie, ten months younger, are on their own, five days a week.  The children of busy professional people who come to Sag Harbor only on weekends, Benji and Reggie take care of themselves, buy and prepare their own food, and obey the unwritten rules of the community while they are alone at the family cottage during the week.  They set their own limits and test them, always making sure, however, that the cottage is clean and orderly when their parents arrive on weekends.  They volunteer no information about their week’s activities.

As Whitehead recreates Benji’s coming of age during that one summer, he explores all the issues of adolescence, creating a genial memoir filled with humor and the universal angst of puberty, within the Sag Harbor microcosm of a generation ago. This summer in Sag Harbor is different for Benji, since Randy, one of the older boys who still summers at “Sag,” now has a car, which will hold five people.  With a group of regular friends who number six, the competition is fierce to be seen in the car and not be the one poor soul stuck pedaling a bike.  Girls are now an issue, and sexual boasting a way of life, though imagination plays a huge part in the stories of their experience.

Benji’s teenage concerns are universal, and his changing relationships are typical.  Reggie, who has been so close to him that the brothers have been regarded as Siamese twins, is now going in new directions, and they spend less time together.  Both have summer jobs—Reggie at a hamburger joint, and Benji at Jonni Waffle, an ice cream chain with waffle cones made on the premises, the site of much of the action here.  Benji wants to be called “Ben,” and he, like his friends, spends much of his time figuring out what’s “in” and “out” regarding rock music and clothes.  For the first time he gets a haircut by someone other than his father, who, we learn, always did a terrible job, though Benji did not notice it until later when he saw his early school pictures.  Though the boys ARE boys and get into the usual amount of mischief, it is minor, usually not even caught by the adults around them.  He, like his friends, is, at heart, good, intelligent, and thoughtful—for a young teenager just discovering girls and beer.

As he is maturing, he is also taking a closer look at the relationships of his parents and their friends, knowing that some of his father’s friends have been discovered to have Other Families, that over the years his father, a drinker, has been verbally abusive to his mother and brother, and that now his parents are “deep into…ancient grudges and unforgivable failures.”  His older sister Elena, who went off to college and then never came home again to live, has told him to “get out when you can.”  He’s not sure why.

Filled with homey details and vivid descriptions of people and places, Sag Harbor memorializes a time and place, a place that is changing even when Benji is there.  He bemoans the gentrification of the area, where the local “Winking Whale” has been replaced by the Jonni Waffle chain, and notes that new people are buying up the houses owned by people who have been there for a whole generation, and that the “haunted houses” left empty and untended by people who have not come to Sag Harbor for years, are being sold and upgraded.

Sag Harbor is an ideal place to set a fresh coming-of-age novel consisting of a series of summer adventures.  The many charms of Whitehead’s “Fourth Autobiographical Novel” come from the warm good humor of the narrator, his intelligent commentary on his private and public life as a fifteen-year-old, and his sense of perspective, even as he is living through adolescence.   We have probably all felt as Benji does at the end of summer when he says, “I was definitely more together than I was at the start of the summer.  It didn’t seem like that much time had passed, but I had to be a bit smarter.  Just a little.  Look at the way I was last Labor day.  An idiot!”  Readers who have had the good fortune to grow up with their own “summer place” as a refuge from school pressures will find this “novel” especially appealing for the memories it conjures, along with the friends (some of them probably long lost) who will always inhabit them.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 88 readers
PUBLISHER: Doubleday; First Edition (April 28, 2009)
REVIEWER: Mary Whipple
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Colson Whitehead
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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May 23, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Class - Race - Gender, Coming-of-Age, Contemporary, Facing History, NE & New York

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