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Sag Harbor

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The year is 1985. Benji Cooper is one of the only black students at an elite prep school in Manhattan. He spends his falls and winters going to roller-disco bar mitzvahs, playing too much Dungeons and Dragons, and trying to catch glimpses of nudity on late-night cable TV. After a tragic mishap on his first day of high school—when Benji reveals his deep enthusiasm for the horror movie magazine Fangoria—his social doom is sealed for the next four years.

But every summer, Benji escapes to the Hamptons, to Sag Harbor, where a small community of African American professionals have built a world of their own. Because their parents come out only on weekends, he and his friends are left to their own devices for three glorious months. And although he’s just as confused about this all-black refuge as he is about the white world he negotiates the rest of the year, he thinks that maybe this summer things will be different. If all goes according to plan, that is.

There will be trials and tribulations, of course. There will be complicated new handshakes to fumble through, and state-of-the-art profanity to master. He will be tested by contests big and small, by his misshapen haircut (which seems to have a will of its own), by the New Coke Tragedy of ’85, and by his secret Lite FM addiction. But maybe, with a little luck, things will turn out differently this summer.

In this deeply affectionate and fiercely funny coming-of-age novel, Whitehead—using the perpetual mortification of teenage existence and the desperate quest for reinvention—lithely probes the elusive nature of identity, both personal and communal.

273 pages, Hardcover

First published April 28, 2009

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About the author

Colson Whitehead

38 books14.9k followers

COLSON WHITEHEAD is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of eleven works of fiction and nonfiction, and is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, for The Nickel Boys and The Underground Railroad, which also won the National Book Award. A recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships, he lives in New York City.

Harlem Shuffle is the first book in The Harlem Trilogy. The second, Crook Manifesto, will be published in 2023.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,393 reviews
Profile Image for chris.
96 reviews5 followers
March 14, 2009
Colson Whitehead is one shit-describin' motherfucker.
Profile Image for Glenn Sumi.
404 reviews1,520 followers
August 8, 2020
This was the perfect book to read in late summer, as well as a nice introduction** to the writing of Colson Whitehead. It’s more like a 4.5 star book, but I’m rounding up because the writing is so good and the author captures this era so effectively. I’m definitely going to read more by him.

It’s the summer of 1985 and 15-year-old Benji is, as usual, at his family’s place on the eponymous Sag Harbor, a small village in the Hamptons populated during the season by upper-middle class, professional African-Americans.

Not much happens. Unlike most coming-of-age books, there’s no big goal, nothing leading up to a life-altering event. In that respect, it’s life-like. Changes happen slowly; family tensions gradually build up. Three whole months are enough to reinvent yourself before going back to your mostly-white Manhattan private school, right? Maybe, maybe not, especially if you’re a Dungeons & Dragons-playing nerd like Benji, who wants to be called Ben from now on because it’s more grown-up sounding.

Benji (no one, it turns out, ends up calling him Ben) gets a job at the local ice cream parlour; he hangs out with friends he only sees in the summer (they’re sprawled around the New York-New Jersey area during the rest of the year); together, they discuss the changing music (rap/hip-hop is just emerging) and play around with BB guns; they pack into a car driven by that slightly older friend who’s got his license (suddenly riding your bike is déclassé); and then there’s the question of girls...

The eight chapters are rounded like short stories, and taken together they add up to something very satisfying. Whitehead nails the geography and feel of this particular time, place and cultural/socio-economic milieu. And yet it's all universal in its appeal. He writes like a dream, whether critiquing the town’s few radio stations; describing Benji’s doctor father’s afternoon alcohol regime (all done through sounds); recounting the pecking order of his friends and how they will, in a few years, change; or taking you through the frozen foods section of the grocery aisle.

There’s something elegiac about the book, especially in the stunning final pages, set during the annual Labor Day picnic and campfire. It’s here that Whitehead’s writing reaches its greatest heights of lyricism, insight and profundity.

There are passages that are so brilliant and funny and just beautifully constructed that they demand to be read aloud. Do it. And try to read the book in the summer. You’ll thank me afterwards.

** I've since read many more books by Whitehead, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels The Underground Railroad (a clear 5 star book) and The Nickel Boys
Profile Image for Trish.
1,352 reviews2,396 followers
December 30, 2017
The first time I read this book shortly after publication in 2009 I didn’t like anything about it. I didn’t understand Whitehead’s air of casual privilege. I reread it at the end of 2017 because a review by Brandon Harris in the New York Review of Books (Dec 7, 2017) about James McBride’s new collection of short stories, Five-Carat Soul, mentions Sag Harbor as “ravishing.” What did I miss?

The short answer is that I missed everything. But without going back to interrogate that 9-year-ago self, I can’t be sure I didn’t just miss, but dismiss this gorgeously-written growing-up summer reminiscent of Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. Whitehead surely didn’t have a white girl in mind as his target audience: he spoke to other young boys in a dangerous world who are uncertain, black, and soon-to-be men. This white girl gets to listen in.

This second time I listened to Mirron Willis read the novel and he gave it the voice I needed for comprehension. And yes, I do get it now. That mid-1980’s summer on Long Island gave a look into a boy’s mind, how he thought, what concerned him most, the dangers that lurked at the edges of his testosterone-soaked consciousness. Even his obliviousness to moves made by the few age-appropriate girls in his cohort rang true. Often boys look poleaxed at that age—fifteen—they are thinking of other things while their body is reacting.

What jerked me aware of my whiteness this time was the jokey nature of the not-quite-ready-for-the-world half-man Benji talking about the radio spot his father listened to about the shootings happening regularly and constantly, the shootings of black men, or women, dropped into the news like yesterday’s weather. All of a sudden I was willing to concede that his reality had real, unreasonable, and unexpected death in it, not mine, and I should shut my mouth and listen up.

Once I gave him the reins, I could see and hear the way language was being used, see how capable that boy was of capturing a mood or the attitudes of his friends, his family. When BB guns crop up in the story, they immediately register as danger, despite the innocence all parties have exhibited to now. A group of teen boys testing the puncture power of BB shot from close range…it sets the blood pulsing and the mind reeling. A sense of danger is here to stay.

A short section near the end telling of Benji’s exciting and mysterious older sister Elena is filled with a barely acknowledged yearning for connection so poignant our hearts break asunder. Benji’s discussion of his parents’ marriage, and the father’s oppressive attitudes towards his wife and children, explains an avoidance in the family dynamic with an authenticity that can’t be faked. Benji’s mother “disappeared, word by word” when his father became verbally abusive, and the sense of propriety Benji had developed somewhere led him to close all the windows in the warm house in an attempt to keep the parents' raised voices hidden from the neighborhood. That sense of shame is a just a shuttercock instant in a boy's life: a few years earlier, the youngster would not feel he had the agency, a few years later, he would realize this happens in every marriage.

Some set scenes may challenge our credulousness, though anyone who has lived with a teenaged male may well be taken in: the pot of writhing maggots, the killing of houseflies with a rubber band, the first open-eyed open-mouthed kiss of a girl—all these elements of a parentless summer by the beach ring so true we feel the grit of wind-blown sand between our teeth. The beginning of the last chapter has some of the most beautiful writing I have seen anywhere, about the passage of time and reaching the end… of summer, of youth, of innocence, and somehow more than all that.

This wonderful fiction deserves all the accolades it got at the time, and it makes me curious to try another of Whitehead’s novels, especially the science fiction. I will look at Underground… again, for my own benefit, but I may owe him an apology for a review that did not acknowledge that however he wants to write about his understanding of slavery is a perspective that I have nothing to say about.
397 reviews20 followers
August 19, 2022
This is a great coming of age novel by one of the most aclaimed authors in America. In it a young black man learns to navigate himself through a pomantly white highschool and a mostly black upperclass summer resort. He learns much about himself and others. This is a quite enjoyable read. I recommend highly all I have read of this author's.
Profile Image for Corey.
303 reviews64 followers
March 15, 2017
Remember that guy from high school? You know the one: smart as a whip, and funny too. Handsome, nice smile. Maybe he was on the basketball team or something. Let's call him Mike.

Mike's teachers used to say he was "going places." And how could he not be? He was enrolled in all the right AP classes, and he was entirely agreeable. Always knew exactly the right thing to say, that Mike. He wasn't really sure what he wanted to do with his life, but that was okay. It's okay not to know in the beginning.

But as time wears on, it becomes less and less acceptable. Mike gets a little lost once he goes to college. He gets easily distracted, and overextends himself trying to be everyone's buddy like he was in high school. He hasn't even started thinking about a major. His grades take a dive. He has to drop out.

He comes back home to live with his parents. This, too, is fine. Everyone falters a little bit here and there. Even Mike. He gets a job, let's say at Dairy Queen. Sure enough, he becomes manager after only eight months. Mike finds that he's far more comfortable back home then he was at college, and all his friends who still live here are so happy to see him.

After about a year, Mike gets his own place, just a few miles from his childhood home. Years pass. Maybe he finds a wife. Maybe he gets divorced. Nonetheless, he presses on. His friends move away to start their own lives, and Mike begins to find that he is more and more alone. He takes to drinking.

Now say it's about ten years (or a hundred pages) after high school graduation. Let's say you've come home for Thanksgiving, and you go to the local bar, just like you used to. And who should be there but Mike! You're so happy to see him. You clasp a hand on his shoulder, say "hey," and Mike's sure happy to see you too.

He says, "Remember when...?"

You say, "Sure, I remember."

He says, "Remember when...?"

You say, "Those were the days."

He says, "Remember when...?"

You say, "Yep, uh-huh. Man, that was something."

An hour (or an entire chapter) passes like this. You look around for someone else to talk to (or another book to read), but you can't find anyone. So you have to sit there and listen to Mike. And he drones on and on about the good old days. And, finally, you ask what he's up to now, and he tells you he's still manager of the local DQ.

How could this be? How could this be when Mike had so much potential? What a waste.

Is this metaphor long enough for you?

Let's drive the nail through the coffin on this analogy and say that SAG HARBOR is Mike. Whitehead's prose is faultless, and he's very funny--I laughed out loud a few times. He makes clear, on just about every page, how eager he is to please the reader.

But the damn book never goes anywhere. Whitehead is prone to many-paged tangents about soft drinks, the local ice cream shop, the narrator's vendetta against people who turn out to be very minor characters. It's not clear why the reader should care about any of the shenanigans his teenage characters get up to, except maybe that they're good for a laugh. And it's all told through this incredibly sentimental, nostalgic lens.

There can be no dispute about Whitehead's ability. The guy can craft a sentence. But who cares about sentence-craft if the story doesn't amount to anything? It does you no good at 30 to have taken AP Physics at 18 if all you're going to do is work at Dairy Queen (ok, I'm done now, I promise).

SAG HARBOR has no plot, and no insight of real weight. It has nothing to say except, "remember when" and "remember when" and "remember when."
Profile Image for Kelly (and the Book Boar).
2,415 reviews7,420 followers
June 14, 2021
Every once in a while there’s absolutely no need for me to write a review because I sneak a peek at what others’ thought and find my exact reaction has already been posted . . . . .

I snatched this up when it appeared on my library’s recommendation feature – mainly due to the fact that I am anxiously awaiting the release of Harlem Shuffle and have already given up the dream of obtaining an early copy since NetGalley said “no thank you, ma’am, your review ratio is embarrassing.” Whitehead is an author who is hit or miss for me. I didn’t fall all over The Nickel Boys like everyone else and he wrote one of the worst zombie books I’ve had the displeasure of reading. But I really dug The Underground Railroad and there’s just something about his writing that speaks to me . . . . even when the story being told doesn’t.

And talking about speaking to me. This dang story was like a siren song. Normally I blow through a book a day, but I wanted to savor it. Masticate it. The words were just so chewy and delicious. The good news is you’ll know right away if it isn’t going to work for you due to the density of the descriptions and the free flow type of narrative that meanders from one moment to the next during the summer of ’85 without having much of a beginning/middle/end other than the last day of school being the start and Labor Day being the finale. At times it was also pretty hilarious . . . .

We used to call Marcus “Arthur Ashe.” Two summers ago, Marcus had suffered a dry patch—actually multiple dry patches, on his elbows, knees, in the webbing between his fingers and toes. “Why'd his mother let him out the house like that,” we'd all wonder, but never say aloud, because talking about someone's mother was, well, talking about someone's mother. Talking about someone's mother was talking about your own mother: it opened a door. Obviously the nickname affected him deeply. Perhaps the sight of a tennis racket mortifying him, all those long months of the school year, or a chance encounter with someone dressed in crisp white clothing curdling his mood. All I know is that the next summer Marcus returned so profoundly moisturized that there was nary a flake of ash to be seen on his skin. In fact his skin was so lubed up that he glistened mightily whenever the sun hit his flesh, and even when it didn't. He had become, sadly, a living Jheri Curl. “Hey, Activator!” NP called out one afternoon, while making little spritzing motions about his head, and Arthur Ashe was now Activator until Labor Day.

I don’t know why I connected with this so much, but I certainly did and feel like it is quite possibly the quintessential coming of age/summertime tale for me. I’ll definitely be adding a hard copy to the book hoard.
Profile Image for Brown Girl Reading.
346 reviews1,595 followers
July 29, 2018
My real rating is 4,5 stars. Excellent read! The only thing that prevents me from giving this book 5 stars is the ending. However, this book has so much going for it and I strongly recommend it. Click the link to watch the live discussion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7wtLe...
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,498 followers
February 25, 2017
A sentimental tale of growing up through the lens of a set of black middle-class teenagers at liberty for their summers on Long Island. There is a timeless quality and sense of innocence in this exploration of juvenile adventure and search for identity. The relatively segregated community of wealthy professionals is free from the racism and pressures to succeed they face in their private schools in New York City. Benji and his brother are trusted to fend for themselves during the weekdays when their parents stay in the city. They have freedom of movement with their bikes and the occasional car of older members of their tribe. In between working part-time at a fast food joint, they spend their time at the beach, exploring, going to parties or movies, engaging in B-B gun fights, and just hanging out, developing cool lingo and handshakes, bragging about their progress in sexual conquest or debating the meaning of song lyrics. Nothing heavy. Surprisingly little in the way of trouble with alcohol, drugs, vandalism, or peer conflicts. Some angst about racial identity. Benji proceeds past awkwardness and confusion toward a growing maturity and confidence, responsibility as a model for his younger brother, and respect for girls as inspirations for love and not targets for a score. The dialog and capturing of that certain aimless freedom of youth makes this a worthwhile read.
Profile Image for Dan.
227 reviews133 followers
September 23, 2012
It's been a couple years since I read this, but this book still brings back memories every time I see it, and I felt it was time to come back and give it a proper review.

Since I was 3 years old, my family has owned a cottage on Lake Erie, in a resort community near Cedar Point. We stay there every summer for at least one full week, plus a dozen weekends, and are always joined by a bounty of friends and family. It has always been a place I will treasure, and holds many fond memories. Of all the books I've read, only Sag Harbor accurately captures the experience of growing up there.

The book itself is a memoir of a restful and sacred place, a bittersweet reminiscence to a simpler and happier time. The author looks back fondly upon this last summer where he was able to savor the last gasp of childhood and irresponsibility.

These experiences and emotions are so similar to mine that the atmosphere of this book could have been pulled out of my own consciousness. There is nothing like vacationing as a child, with nothing ahead of you but fun and games and delicious freedom. But, as you near the end of childhood, the feeling never lasts. There is an expiration date on it, and this book captures that very well. Another feeling I am intimately familiar with, one that was especially strong at the time I read it.

Few novels have so successfully pulled such strong, personal, feelings from me. I have rarely been able to relate so closely with a book, with characters, with a setting. There is no complex plot here, no moving parts, just people, a place, and a summer. And memories, those that I - just like the author - will forever hold on to.
Profile Image for Monica **can't read fast enough**.
1,030 reviews330 followers
May 5, 2022
I'm trying really hard to fall in love with Whitehead's writing, but it's not quite working and I'm not sure why. Sag harbor started off strong for me and I was looking forward to moving through the story, but somewhere along the way I wandered away from truly enjoying it. I'm not sure why his writing is flat for me. It's hard when I know in my head that I should be enjoying a story that I assumed I would connect with, but it's just didn't happen. I didn't stay invested in the story past the halfway mark. Maybe I need to start incorporating literary fiction more regularly into my reading, because after finishing this I just feel like a literary fiction failure.

Where you can find me:
•(♥).•*Monica Is Reading*•.(♥)•
Twitter: @monicaisreading
Instagram: @readermonica
Profile Image for Roy.
Author 6 books251 followers
February 17, 2021
Colson Whitehead is a wonderful writer. Although I wasn't a Sag Harbor summer kid myself, the author and I are about the same age so much of his reminiscing about his experiences as a 15 year old stirred similar memories I possess. Sag Harbor is a work of fiction, not a memoir, but it reads as much like the latter than as a novel, and no doubt it was largely inspired by the author's youthful days. Not a whole lot happens in Sag Harbor, basically a group of teenagers kill the abundance of time they have on hand, and I know plenty of readers would have a problem with this. I certainly wouldn't have minded if the story had been more eventful. After all, if you're writing a memoir about a period of time when nothing particularly earth shattering took place but it nonetheless was vivid in your thoughts because it was a critical period of your life, then you need to be true to what did and didn't happen. But if you're writing a novel, certainly you can feel free to throw in a little drama. Whitehead resists this temptation and simply gives us a first person tale about an introspective person on a summer vacation somewhere roughly in between the end of his childhood and beginning of his manhood. What does Benji think about as he makes his transition to becoming Ben? For the most part he reflects on his days up to that point for he knows they will soon be coming to an end, and he wonders what the future will hold for him. He holds memories that are both crystal clear and cloudy. As for his insight into tomorrow, like the rest of us he can only guess a little and hope a lot.
Profile Image for Jessica Woodbury.
1,586 reviews1,984 followers
October 1, 2020
Brought this to the beach and then promptly left it halfway finished and ignored it for a month. Sorry, book.

My reread of this made me realize that my memory of it was really vague! While I remembered a lot about the setting, I had forgotten all of its Colson-Whitehead-ness. Which is probably because I was reading so much Whitehead at the time that it had become normal to me. I forgot how talky it is, the way the narrator goes on and on, the way he turns circles into these long digressions that are as much a part of the book as any of the actual goings on. I also forgot that it's really more like interconnected stories, with all these specific moments and feelings set apart in the different chapters. It's about nostalgia and looking back at your life in a lot of ways, and it's clear that Benji, our narrator, now has a whole other set of thoughts about himself and his life but he doesn't get into them much. He tells us how teenage Benji felt and then is astonished that he ever felt such a thing. I remembered it as easy reading but it's highly neurotic and meandering. But it has a lot of what I like best about Whitehead, and is probably his closest work of fiction to his nonfiction work The Noble Hustle, which is one of my favorites of his.
Profile Image for kira.
63 reviews12 followers
January 31, 2009
I'm glad I read this book in the dead of winter - it is so evocative of the atmosphere of a little beach town and of a kid's experience of coming of age during the long, restless and wondrous days of summer. Though the novel focuses primarily on Benji's coming of age in an upper middle class African American community, so many of his experiences and the themes in the book cross race lines, and Whitehead makes Benji's experiences feel almost universal. This novel presents the complex and delicate relationships between family members and friends gracefully and subtly -- beautifully. Each chapter could almost stand alone as its own little gem of a short story -- and in fact, bits and pieces of Whitehead's short story in the winter fiction issue of the New Yorker appear scattered throughout the book. Highly recommend.
Profile Image for Esil.
1,118 reviews1,330 followers
July 11, 2010
I was going to give this book 3 stars because there are parts I liked and parts that were only ok, so it seemed to average out to 3 stars. But in the last 10 pages there is a reflection on growing up that was so well done that it pulled me to 4 stars. Overall, this is good read about being a teenager, trying to find your place in the world and understanding how things work. This theme was made more compelling by the narrator's specific circumstances, i.e. as a middle class African American spending the school year in a primarily white private school in New York and the summer on the beach amongst other middle class African Americans. Also I liked the writing; it was never saccharine or sentimental.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
3,921 reviews35.4k followers
August 7, 2015
Looking forward to reading Glen's review --(he JUST read it) ...

I read this book a long time ago --when on a retreat vacation in the mountains.


Profile Image for Sharon :).
339 reviews32 followers
February 4, 2021
This book was hysterical. A little drawn out at times but so many funny parts!
Profile Image for Deacon Tom F.
1,706 reviews129 followers
March 25, 2022

"Sag Harbor"is a fantastic coming of age story about life at the beach during the summer. It is incredibly well written with characters that are precise to the plot.

Although I have never been to Sag Harbor or any Long Island beach, this was a story I related to because I went to the Jersey shore during the summer. And many other activities presented in this book, I also experienced.

Super book! I highly recommend!
Profile Image for Jonathan Peto.
252 reviews46 followers
May 4, 2020
This coming-of-age novel takes place in 1985. Last summer I read another, Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, which also takes place in the 80s. Now that I think of it, I read another the summer before: How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran. There are similarities between them but differences that set each apart. Have writers who were teens in the 90s and 2000s written any coming-of-age novels? I'm curious if the same similarities of style, obsessions, nostalgia, and pop culture references bind them together. It's not overdone in these ones because of strong writing and humor.

Colson Whitehead's descriptions about the simplest things often made me laugh out loud. I gave up noting them down because it happened nearly every page, especially because I worked an ice cream job at one time too, the main subject of chapter 3. The story feels like a straight up memoir, as a character, Ben, looks back on his summer life in Sag Harbor. I had to remind myself that the events and voice may not match Whitehead's experiences verbatim, but they might? Anyone out there vacation there? The history of Sag Harbor is woven throughout, in passing, via Ben's reminiscing about family histories.

Ben's African American and for the most part, during the summer, so is his community. That bears on the story and on Ben's perspective but coming-of-age, and recollecting it, are the dominant topics. The voice is unfiltered and fresh, but is not YA, I guess because the narrator is looking back and is reflective. Here are just a few sentences or phrases that stood out for me, though there are impressive, longer passages in the book that are thoughtful and provocative too:

These were the early stages of Bobby's transformation into that weird creature, the prep-schooled militant. We were made to think of ourselves as odd birds, right? According to the world we were the definition of paradox: black boys with beach houses. (p. 71)

"That's what I'm talking about," NP said, thrusting out his hand so that his jive-ass flutter smashed into Bobby's more aggressive pump-'n'-dump, the two quite different shake styles misfiring before finding common ground in the two-finger snap. As if their historic hand summit had come off magnificently, NP yelped, "Alright!" And... (p. 75)

Bert emerged, attended by his sound effect, a flushing toilet. (p. 130)

They wore flip-flops that smacked like wet lips... (p. 133)

It was exactly the sort of buzz-kill comment a puzzling fellow like me would make. (p. 252)

I had a roll of non sequiturs in my pockets and I was just tossing them out across the water trying to get a good skip going. (p. 287)
Profile Image for Madeline Knight-Dixon.
171 reviews20 followers
August 8, 2012
This book is… unexpected. When I began it, I thought it was a traditional coming of age story; there would be a challenge, a test of some sort, that the main character would have to get through in order to have grown into a new person by the end of the summer. But that’s not what this book is. It is simply a novel that recounts the summer of a teenage boy. It’s warm, sweet, at times a little sad but mostly as carefree as summer nights are.

Of course it is about Sag Harbor, the Hamptons for upper-middle class black people, and so clearly race plays an issue. But for these black kids growing up a world they don’t fit in because they’re black, they still aren’t oppressed or disparaged. If anything, it’s about them trying to find a balance between becoming to “street” and becoming too “white”.

I think the reason I liked this book so much was because I identified with it so strongly. My dad is a doctor, so although I’m half-black I grew up in a nice neighborhood and never really developed any stereotypical black traits. As I’ve gotten older, it’s become a constant struggle to attach myself to any one identity. This book gave me some insight, warning against the dangers of becoming too radically opposed to white people for the sake of appearing more involved in the culture. Fighting against injustice is not the same as hating white people.

So although it is carefree and fun to read, there’s an undercurrent of deeper racial issues that I found myself fascinated by. Not a huge fan of the ending, but it wrapped up the summer nicely. I seriously think everyone should read this though because surprise there are more well off black people than just the Cosbys (I know, you’re shocked).
Profile Image for Snotchocheez.
595 reviews322 followers
January 1, 2013

I'd be the first acknowledge that Colson Whitehead's style is a tough sell for most readers. He's got a detatched, wordy aloofness, and a meandering stream-of-conscious quality that might alienate some, bore others. I contend, though, he's certainly worth reading if you're like me and appreciate authors in love with the English language. He completely wowed me with 2011's Zombie-story-for-people-that-don't-like-zombie-stories: Zone One. Mr. Whitehead's meandering iciness contributed wonderfully to the novel's creepout quotient, yet each sentence was suffused with exacting perfection: brains-eating brain food. He's also got this wry, subtle sense of humor that balenced out the sickening tableau laid out. With Sag Harbor, a (presumably) semi-autographical account of a summer in the late 80s spent in what has been evidently been the de facto (if not de jure) African American Hamptons at the end of Long Island, the writing is no less meandering and aloof, no less suffused with exacting crisp language and sweatily dripping with droll wit. This is not the Great American Novel that i strongly suspect Mr. Whitehead has in him, but it's still worth exploring.
Profile Image for Cheri.
1,712 reviews2,239 followers
April 1, 2010
In parts this is well written, but somewhere around the middle I was bored. And, I stayed bored until about twenty five pages from the end.

When the writing was good, it was worth reading, but I didn't find his story overly compelling.
Profile Image for Alan.
1,086 reviews106 followers
October 19, 2010
Dag... I really liked this hyperrealistic hybrid between autobiography and fiction (from its internal consistency and from the author's Acknowledgements, it seems likely that much of the background and many of the events were drawn from his own growing up). It begins at the intersection of two alien worlds—alien to me, anyway. The first: growing up black in America. The second: growing up wealthy—or affluent, well-to-do, at worst upper middle-class... definitions differ, but families who live in New York City and have a second summer house on Long Island qualify at least as well-off, from my stance as a poor West Virginia boy whose father could barely afford to keep one house.

Whitehead does a beautiful job of anchoring his trenchant observations about teenage not-quite-manhood with enormous amounts of realistic detail—the one thing I thought might be anachronistic (watching CNN in 1985) turns out to be quite likely; CNN began transmitting news in 1980. It's easy to believe that much of this book was drawn from his life, though it is clearly fiction.

Of course the prose is beautifully written as well, as we've come to expect from Whitehead; his deft, self-deprecating sentences and apt metaphors beg for reading aloud, to get the full effect.

And, as the story progresses, he brings in elements of cultural commonality that do resonate strongly with my own growing up. I also remember (though I was in college at the time, a bit older than Whitehead's viewpoint character Benji—sorry, Ben) the betrayal that was the introduction of "New Coke":
I remember when I first heard that they were changing the formula. April 23, 1985. It was dinnertime and I'd wandered into the living room to ask my mother a question—I can't remember what it was, as it was erased by the terrible information. Dinnertime custom had Reggie and me eating in his room before an array of sitcoms, the M*A*S*Hs, the 'KRPs, while our parents ate in the living room watching the evening news. (I moved into my sister's room when she went to college, but Reggie got to keep the TV after a series of negotiations too Byzantine to go into, higher-level even-Stephen stuff beyond mortal ken.) I walked in just in time to hear the newscaster say, "A surprising announcement about an American classic." Somehow I knew. I stayed through the commercial break and watched as Roberta Goizueta, the CEO of Coca-Cola, cheered the end of the world.

Later on, there's even more convergence, when Benji talks about how he and Reggie have to be careful around Dad on the weekends, just as I did, and for similar reasons.

This is not quite a bildungsroman in the formal sense, perhaps—unless the trip from New York City to Sag Harbor itself counts as the physical journey, the separation that prompts the young man's spiritual evolution. But it is a fascinating coming-of-age novel written with great style and confidence. I didn't like it quite as much as Whitehead's amazing debut, The Intuitionist, perhaps, but that's no condemnation of the current work. Not at all...
Profile Image for Ron Charles.
1,024 reviews48.4k followers
November 28, 2013
No one writes with more acrobatic imagination and good humor about the complexities of race in America than Colson Whitehead. In "The Intuitionist" and "John Henry Days," he evoked the nation's racial history as deftly as he created bizarre alternatives. And in his 2003 paean to his home town, "The Colossus of New York," he captured the choreography of a vibrant, multicultural city. Now he surprises us again with a charming autobiographical novel that comes honey-glazed with nostalgia. Detailing the life of a dorky teenager in a community that's peculiar but oddly familiar, "Sag Harbor" is a kind of black "Brighton Beach Memoirs," but it's spiced with the anxieties of being African American in a culture determined to dictate what that means.

Like Stephen Carter, Whitehead writes about an enclave of upper-middle-class blacks, in this case a contented but separate summer resort on Long Island. (Whenever the narrator mentions Sag Harbor to white people in New York, they say, "Oh, I didn't know black people went out there.") Straddling parts of East Hampton and Southampton, Sag Harbor is an ancient town by American standards, a whaling community that predates the Revolution (it's mentioned in "Moby-Dick"). But the 20-acre section that Whitehead celebrates was settled in the 1930s and '40s by blacks from Harlem, Brooklyn and parts of New Jersey, professional people who "had fought to make a good life for themselves, vanquished the primitives and barbarians out to kill them, keep them out, string them up, and they wanted all the spoils of their struggle. A place to go in the summer with their families. To make something new."

Readers who mistakenly imagine that authors are really describing themselves in their novels will be on firmer ground this time. "The people are made up," Whitehead has said, "but the streets and the houses are all real. My old haunts are in here." The narrator, Benji Cooper, knows that "according to the world, we were the definition of paradox: black boys with beach houses . . . but it never occurred to us that there was anything strange about it." Every year he and his carefree younger brother leave their Manhattan prep school, where they seem as exotic as the sons of an African diplomat, to spend the summer in the ranch bungalow built by their grandparents on Sag Harbor. Though the novel covers several years of boyhood adventures, it opens with the anticipation of arriving by car in June and ends in the melancholy twilight of Labor Day when the new school year beckons once again with the chance of reinvention.

An excerpt of "Sag Harbor" appeared last year in the New Yorker, and other parts seem destined for the immortality of anthologies. The novel's eight chapters are, in effect, masterful short stories, deceptively desultory as they riff on the essential quests of teenage boys: BB guns, nude beaches, beer and, above all, the elusive secret to fitting in. But plot is the least of Whitehead's concerns here. Charm alone drives most of these chapters, the seductive voice of a narrator as clever as he is self-deprecating, moving from one comic anecdote to the next with infectious delight in his own memories. "I was one of those dullards," Benji recalls, "who thought that 'Just be yourself' was the wisdom of the ages, the most calming piece of advice I had ever heard, and acted accordingly." Unfortunate references to Dungeons & Dragons and his fondness for Abba cost him dearly freshman year, but now he's determined to be cool. ("D&D had few other real-life applications, except as a means of perpetuating virginity.")

Some of the funniest passages are Benji's scientific analyses of the trappings of teenage life: the endlessly mutating handshakes that he can never master, the impossibly tortured linguistics of swearing, the fraught delineation of which music is too white to enjoy. "Keeping my eyes open" becomes his full-time job, "gathering data, more and more facts, because if I had enough information," he says, "I might know how to be. Listening and watching, taking notes for something that might one day be a diagram for an invention, a working self with moving parts." But it's so hard. "We redrew the maps feverishly," Benji remembers, "throwing out our agreements and concessions. This week surf wear was in, and we claimed Ocean Pacific T-shirts and Maui shorts as our own. Next year, Lacoste was out in enemy territory again. . . . The rules changed daily. It kept you on your toes."

Whitehead is sharpest on the plight of well-off black kids, his tone wavering between resigned sympathy and impatient mockery. "The customary schedule for good middle-class boys and girls," Benji explains, "called for them to get Militant and fashionably Afrocentric the first semester of freshman year in college. Underlining key passages in 'The Autobiography of Malcolm X' and that pass-around paperback of 'Black Skin. White Masks.' Organize a march or two to protest the lack of tenure for that controversial professor in the Department of Black Studies." Is everyone allowed to laugh at this? He treads even closer to the line when describing African Americans' efforts to skirt racial stereotypes. When picking up a watermelon at the store, for instance, he advises including some "cover purchases, as if you were buying hemorrhoid cream or something, throw some apples into the basket, a carton of milk, butter." But not all the satire here is pointed at blacks; there's a marvelous anecdote about " 'Fro-touching": "the strange compulsion [that] drives white people to touch black hair." That gentle ribbing of all sides of America's peculiar racial tension is central to Whitehead's immense appeal. Even when he deconstructs the myth of the Cosby family, his warmhearted wit suggests that we finally share enough common understanding to laugh at each other without bitterness or hatred or hard feelings.

As "Sag Harbor" moves along, its tone grows more openly melancholy, and trouble in Benji's happy-looking family sometimes shatters the comedy. But the real tragedy, the sadness of adolescence ending, is tempered by his ever-fresh, American faith in self-invention. "I could do it," Benji thinks of his future cool self. "It was going to be a great year. I was sure of it." That fragile hope may be the most irresistible quality of this wise, affectionate novel.

Profile Image for Karen Miller.
Author 14 books181 followers
July 31, 2012

For all those who thought – like me – that the Hamptons was simply the summer playground for the rich and beautiful, Sag Harbor, by Colson Whitehead may come as a surprise. It seems that upper-middle class African-Americans have owned summer homes there since the 1940s.

And in 1985 15-year-old Benji summered there for his 15th year. Only for the first time he’s pretty much on his own since his parents have decided that he and his younger brother are old enough to hold down the home front, while they only make the 2 ½ hour trek from New York City on the occasional weekend.

To Benji, this is the chance of a lifetime; a chance to prove how cool he really is.

Forget the fact that his classmates in the predominantly white prep school he attends have labeled him a nerd, due in large part to his penchant for Dungeons and Dragons. Forget the fact that he still wears braces, has only a few straggly strands of hair on his chin, and the Afro he sports is misshapen beyond recognition. Forget the fact that, despite his best efforts, he’s never mastered the art of the ever changing soul-brother handshake, and that’s he’s never kissed a girl. Benji is on a mission.

The question that readers are left to ponder after reading this much awaited novel by renowned author Colson Whitehead: is it mission impossible or never a mission at all.

Whitehead, whose previous novels include The Intuitionist, and John Henry Days – which was on the shortlist for the Pulitzer Prize – continues to show off his wonderfully literary style in this fictionalized autobiography. But unlike his other works, Sag Harbor suffers from lack of focus.

Early on, Sag Harbor shows promise of being a wonderful coming of age story like the classic book The Summer of ’42, or the movie The Inkwell; but the promise is never fulfilled.

The Summer of ’42, details a summer in the life a teenager during World War II, who is vacationing with his family in Maine. Although the protagonist was white, and I’m black;, was a teenager in the 40s more than a decade before I was born; and a male while I’m female, I quickly found myself enraptured by the story.

The Inkwell tells the story of an awkward African-American teenager summering in an all-black section of Martha’s Vineyard in the 1970s who pines for a popular and unattainable girl. Again, the protagonist’s reality was far from mine, but I was engrossed.

It wasn’t until after I read Sag Harbor that I realized why I loved these stories so much – it was because both had intriguing plots which enticed me to read about characters with whom I had nothing in common, and in continuing reading I learned about people and lifestyles very different from my own.

While Sag Harbor is beautifully written, I found it much too easy to put down the book. There was nothing to urge me to continue reading. There was no defined plot, and I found myself desperately searching for one. If the plot was supposed to be his determination to prove his coolness, the only move he seems to have made toward this was an unsuccessful attempt to get his summer buddies to call him Ben instead of Benji.

The novel both benefits and suffers from Whitehead’s frequent use of flashbacks – though sometimes entertaining, they often had nothing to do with the story being told.

I did learn a lot about the history of the African-American enclave on Sag Harbor, though, and I was able to laugh –sometimes out loud – at the teenage angst that Benji suffers. I also found myself pitying him his dysfunctional family which includes a mentally and physically abusive father, and a distant mother. But my occasional laughter and pity, notwithstanding, I had a hard time getting into this novel.

As a coming of age tale, Sag Harbor fails because we see no real development on Benji’s part. As a slice of live story, Sag Harbor fails because there was nothing intriguing enough to make me care about the slice – or want more.

I’m sure it would have been a lot easier if I’d been a male African-American teenager in the 1980s growing up in an upper-middle class family who summered in the Hamptons. But I wasn’t. And with no plot to egg me on and enable me to relate rather than just read, I found myself often falling asleep while attempting to get through this almost 300 page novel.
October 4, 2010
I couldn't get into it. Text just kept going on and on and on. Ugh! Put it down after 40 pages.
Profile Image for Cathryn Conroy.
1,002 reviews30 followers
May 11, 2022
This is the power of reading: It will take you places you can never go in real life. Exhibit A is this book.

This is a coming-of-age story about a nerdy and awkward 15-year-old, prep school-educated black boy, who is spending the summer of 1985 at his family's beach house in Sag Harbor, New York.

Written by Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead, this is the sometimes hilarious and always introspective story of Benji Cooper, the son of a podiatrist and corporate attorney who attends a tony Manhattan prep-school during the school year and lives in Sag Harbor in the summer in a community populated by black professionals. At age 15, he is straddling the line between childhood and adulthood, a line made ever the more clear when his parents essentially leave Benji and his younger brother, Reggie, alone at the beach house, coming out only on occasional weekends. The boys have friends, they get jobs, and they enjoy the beach. They have adventures—some intended and some thrust upon them. They get in a little trouble. They develop a taste for beer. From BB gun mishaps to flirting with girls to scooping ice cream, Benji grows up this summer. And he realizes something about his homelife that he tries to keep secret from everyone else.

The best part of this book is the writing. It is absolutely brilliant. Still, don't expect the plot to zip along. It doesn't. It crawls. Whitehead takes pages and pages to describe the smallest detail, and that's OK in his talented hands. But instead of an ongoing story with one thing building on another, this novel is more like a series of highly-connected short stories.

So just relax, pretend you're at the beach, and go along for the ride. I call shotgun!

Just an aside: This slice of ocean nirvana is real. Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest, and Ninevah Beach were founded after World War II as a summer retreat for black families that were not allowed at the beachfront resorts—a kind of refuge from racial strife, according to Wikipedia.
Profile Image for Dan.
1,077 reviews52 followers
February 11, 2022
Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

I enjoyed this coming of age novel in which the protagonist teenage Benji Cooper enjoys the benefits of a lower upper class existence on Long Island. His family has a summer home a short distance from town on the Oceanfront and there are many friends driving BMWs. But he is not so wealthy that he doesn't need a part time job at the ice cream shop for spending cash.

But Benji also lives in the shadow of an abusive father. These uncomfortable scenes along with Benji's forays into vacant beach houses with friends and later teenage girls provide the only real drama in the novel.

Whitehead's detail and pop culture references are probably what stands out most in the novel. If you were a teen in the 1980's many of the cultural references like keeping your Chuck Taylor sneakers white will resonate.

Having read six of Whitehead's novels, this is one of the better ones despite or maybe even because of the slow plot.

While the drama here is not at the level of the Nickel Boys, it made me reflect on my life and even made me wistful. I guess this is the whole point of coming of age stories and why I am so easily enraptured by them. You can feel both sad and happy at the same time when reminded of all this angst mixed with humor.

4 stars.
Profile Image for C..
Author 21 books400 followers
July 19, 2009
When you pick up most writers, you know know exactly what you're going to get -- Tolstoy reads like Tolstoy, "Faulknerian" is an adjective for a reason, Rushdie's novels all share similarities (other than the fact that the most recent ones all suck), and De Lillo has such a strong style that he now borders on self-parody.

Which is what makes Colson Whitehead perhaps the most impressive author writing today. Not only are every one of his books equally fantastic, but each novel bears almost no stylistic relation to any other. Few authors could write a novel as good as "The Intuitionist," but to then follow it with "John Henry Days," then "Apex Hides the Hurt," and now "Sag Harbor"? If authors do try out "something new" it tends to be a detour, something the audience patiently allows while waiting for a return to form, but Whitehead has done nothing but detours -- I have no idea what to expect when I pick up one of his books, other than brilliant writing and an exquisitely cutting understanding of race and culture in America.

Sag Harbor is a pseudo-autobiography about an upper-middle class black teenage boy spending the summer at his family's home out on Long Island. Whitehead brilliantly captures the confusing, exciting, scary elements of being a teenager and being a boy: the magical crushes that exist only in your mind, the friendships that border on enmity and exist only on the proximity of one's parents' houses, and the lonely poignancy of being an overly-thoughtful young nerd. There's coming of age, themes of race and identity, but what I like most is that, just like real summers, it goes nowhere. There's no "big event" that "changes everything," that simmering tension in his house remains just that, with no climactic end, there's no revealed memory that twists what he knows about his life. Benji just lives his life, learns and does stupid things, and then summer ends. Its poignant, wickedly funny, and just as good -- if utterly unlike -- anything Whitehead has written.
32 reviews10 followers
February 13, 2015
A fun book. It's nice to read about a group of black teens without the "gangsta" vibe.
Benji is just as insecure as any other teen-ager when it comes to the latest "in" handshake or popular catch-phrase and as we all know, being in and popular is what being a teen is all about. He is a self-admitted nerd, but one who is tolerated by his group of pals, fellow summer sojourners at their Sag Harbor beach houses. A pretty idyllic way for kids to spend every summer, by the way. Whitehead has a delightful, witty way with words which made this book a pleasure to read. I will be reading more by him, soon, I hope.
Profile Image for Tara.
Author 22 books537 followers
June 28, 2010
While I admit I skimmed through some scenes that didn't hold my attention, I'm glad I read this book. As someone who grew up on Long Island, I was able to relate to much of the story and the descriptions of the beaches and horrid LIE traffic, which Whitehead handled with humor and eloquence. It's an important book, and scenes are full of quiet power, such as an encounter between his mother and father over cheap paper plates: "This is how my mother disappeared, word by word." Wow.
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