Alan's Reviews > Sag Harbor

Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
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's review
Oct 18, 2010

really liked it
Recommended to Alan by: Roberta; previous work
Recommended for: Grown-ups
Read in October, 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...
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