Pamela J's Reviews > Sag Harbor

Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
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Mar 16, 12

bookshelves: african-american, bildungsroman, 21st-century
Read in March, 2012

Whitehead's coming-of-age novel was a light read through the eyes of Benji, an African American teen from a professionally successful family. His mother is a copyright lawyer for a hot cocoa company, and his father is a podiatrist. Rooted in the summer of 1985, Benji outlines his growing pains of separating himself from his brother Reggie whom he and others saw as a twin, despite their age difference. One of the only black boys in his Manhattan prep school, Benji belongs to his summertime friends. He describes the Sag Harbor vacation community as one rooted in generations and traditions (e.g., his father’s grilling prowess; the Cooper house as a pit stop for those returning from the beach; the annual Labor Day festivities, etc.). Oscillating between the naïve youth who does not yet know the importance this oft-cited “DuBois” and mutating Sagaponac for sacadilliac, Benji is also hip to certain life truths and metaphors. Whitehead colors Benji’s views with a self-conscious writerly prose at times to compare his crestfallen pals to Icarus: “It was sad to see Clive and Nick get into character and shuffle up to the velvet rope only to twist back to Earth with melted off feathers” (196). A self-proclaimed nerd, Benji endears himself to the reader because he is ashamed of what he likes. Dungeons and Dragons, the Smiths, easy listening radio, Mad Max, and his Bauhaus t-shirts are Benji’s guilty pleasures, but what teen—what human being for that matter—doesn’t isn’t afraid to assert his preferences at the risk of being judged unfairly? Instead of wallowing in nerd self-pity, Benji, the eternal optimist, picks himself up and dusts himself off. He cracks his reader up with his various commentaries, “On second thought, I take back my shrug. Mishearing song lyrics, making your specific travesty of the words, is the right of every human being” (216).

While Benji’s candor about his summer resort community reminds his readers that his characters are indeed African Americans when one friend is called “NP”(explained in the novel for you), or adults and kids alike call out “Whitey”, he also, more importantly, has the reader seeing his friends and their parents as flawed human beings. Alcoholism does not discriminate—adults abuse it and kids scheme for it. Benji, still a callow youth, rues summers past in his grandparents’ hand-built red house. He knows his place in the generational tides: “We were all there. It was where we mingled with who we had been and who we would be. Sharing space with our echoes out in the sun. The shy kid we used to be and were growing away from, the confident or hard-luck men we would become in our impending seasons, the elderly survivors we’d grow into if we were lucky, with gray stubble and green sun visors. Every summer this shifting-over took place in small degrees as you moved closer to the person who was waiting for you to catch up and some younger version of yourself elbowed you out of the way. […] Where was my replacement, then? […] And who was I replacing? According to this scheme, he had to be here on this street, chowing down on some of Mr. Baxter’s pork ribs” (262).

As summer comes to an end, as it always does, Benji believes in the possibilities of the new school year and ribs himself for his hopefulness when he concludes, “Isn’t it funny? The way the mind works?”
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Quotes Pamela J Liked

Colson Whitehead
“The only time "early bloomer" has ever been applied to me is vis-a-vis my premature apprehension of the deep dread-of-existence thing. In all other cases, I plod and tromp along. My knuckles? Well dragged.”
Colson Whitehead, Sag Harbor

Colson Whitehead
“Two people, two hands, and two songs, in this case "Big Shot" and "Bette Davis Eyes." The lyrics of the two songs provided no commentary, honest or ironic, on the proceedings. They were merely there and always underfoot, the insistent gray muck that was pop culture. It stuck to our shoes and we tracked it through our lives.”
Colson Whitehead, Sag Harbor


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