rating: 4 of 5 stars
Colson Whitehead refers to Sag Harboras his “autobiographical fourth novel”. In this coming of age tale, Whitehead tells us about Benji, an upper middle class African American teenager who lives in New York with his family. His parents are a doctor and a lawyer. It’s 1985 and Benji can’t help comparing his family to the Huxtibles on the Cosby Show. Benji and his younger brother Reggie spend the entire summer of 1985 at their family’s summer house in Sag Harbor. Most of the time the boys are left on their own in Sag Harbor as their parents remain in the city working. Sag Harbor is a summertime conclave of upper middle class African American families. Benji and Reggie spend their days and evenings working and hanging around with other boys who spend every summer at Sag Harbor.
In the novel Benji tries to discover exactly who he is. He doesn’t fit in with his mostly white prep school classmates and he also doesn’t exactly fit in with the black kids at Sag Harbor. He is trying to reinvent himself as a cool kid (he wants to be called Ben, not Benji) but can’t quite get there, either due to the messed up haircut his dad gave him or his enjoyment of Dungeons & Dragons. We feel Benji’s awkwardness and anxiousness. Somehow, he isn’t quite into what the other kids are into.
Everybody had their brands, black kids, white kids. Sperry, Girbaud, and Bennetton. Lee jeans and Le Tigre polos, according to the plumage theory of social commerce. If the correct things belonged to you, perhaps you might belong. I was more survival-oriented. The brands I worshipped lived in the soup aisle, in the freezer section behind glass, I’m talking frozen food here. Swanson, of course, was the standard, the elegant marriage of form and function. The four food groups (meat, veg, starch, apple cobbler) lay pristine in their separate foil compartments, which were in fact, presto, a serving dish. Meal and plate in one slim rectangle–this was American ingenuity at its best and most sustaining.
Whitehead mixes in lots of pop culture references to songs, movies, TV shows and slang from the era. This helps to more deeply evoke the time and the place of Sag Harbor in summer of ’85. Most of the chapters could stand on their own as short stories. Each one explores a different aspect of Benji’s summer, whether its his crush on a girl he works with or reminiscing about the summers of his childhood. Even thought the novel is laced with some more serious topics and themes, the writing is full of sharp wit. Sag Harbor would make a good book club selection and I recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys coming of age stories.