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Bookmarks Issue: 
41-July-Aug-2009
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A-Sag HarborColson Whitehead’s writing often touches on race in America; his books include Apex Hides the Hurt ( 3.5 of 5 Stars May/June 2006), The Colossus of New York ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2004), The Intuitionist, and John Henry Days. He received a MacArthur "genius" grant in 2002.

The Story: In this autobiographical novel, Benji Cooper attends a Manhattan prep school, where other students view his skin color—and upper-class upbringing—as exotic. When summer comes, he and his brother spend time at Sag Harbor, a mostly black urban professional neighborhood on Long Island. During the summer of 1985, Benji, 15, attempts to carve an identity separate from his brother’s as he reunites with his summer friends ("black boys with beach houses") and grapples with The Cosby Show (with its kindred spirits), the New Coke, BB guns, a first kiss, braces, Dungeons & Dragons, and a job at an ice cream shop. In this coming-of-age novel set between Memorial Day and Labor Day, a good kid tries to figure out who he wants to be.
Doubleday. 288 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0385527659

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"The plot does not build to a crescendo, startling revelations are in short supply, and the characters end up only centimeters from where they began. … Except for one thing: It is Whitehead’s most enjoyable book—warm and funny, carefully observed, and beautifully written, studded with small moments of pain and epiphany." Adam Mansbach

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Whitehead’s delicious language and sarcastic, clever voice fit this teenager who’s slowly constructing himself. … It’s an inner monologue, a collection of stories about a classic teenage summer where there’s some cool stuff and some tedium and Benji grows in minute ways he can’t yet see." Touré

Time 4 of 5 Stars
"Whitehead has tapped the most classic summer-novel activity of all: nostalgia. It doesn’t matter if nothing much happens in Sag Harbor, if in all the boys’ games with BB guns no one actually loses an eye. The pleasure is in the way Whitehead recalls it, in loving and lingering detail." Radhika Jokes

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"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. … 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." Ron Charles

Dallas Morning News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Sampling W.E.B. DuBois’ conception of double consciousness (‘an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body’), Whitehead turns Benji’s soul into a wrestling match among his worries about class striving, black identity, sexual desire and definitions of masculinity. … When it’s right, Benji’s voice surges and sings, sifting pop-culture debris down to nuggets of realization." Walton Muyumba

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Credit Mr. Whitehead with this: He captures the fireflies of teenage summertime in a jar without pretending to have some larger purpose. … Did [the book] really need a lengthy exploration of the ice cream business, replete with the smell of Belgian waffle cones and culminating in horror-film visions of deliquescent, multiflavored goo?" Janet Maslin

Entertainment Weekly 3 of 5 Stars
"But while Benji’s voice is compelling, the plot is sand-dollar thin. … Nostalgia that doesn’t carry the full weight of hindsight feels a lot like solipsism." Thom Geier

Critical Summary

Critics have been waiting to get truly excited about a Colson Whitehead novel. Most have decided that Sag Harbor is the one—even though it operates on a smaller scale. The Dallas Morning News described the novel as "a love letter not only to the Long Island town and African-American summer enclave but to ‘80s culture and … adolescence and brotherhood." On the surface, this autobiographical novel contains more pastiche than substance; reviewers expecting a strong plot were disappointed. However, the substance lies in the details: the nuanced portrayals of teen life; the attempt to navigate between black and white society; the undercurrents of family, racial, and class tensions; and "the intricate dynamics of friendship and group identity at a particular time and place" (Boston Globe). Benji’s clever, sarcastic voice carries the show. In the end, Sag Harbor may feel like a nostalgic memoir, but critics agreed that’s a good thing.

Reading Guide

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.

1. How does each of Benji’s comrades (Reggie, NP, Randy, Bobby, Marcus, Clive) contribute to the group? What challenges do they face as friends?

2. Explain the differences between Benji’s age group and that of his sister. During these years, why is the disparity between high school and college so acute?

3. Benji comments that “the rock” on the beach near his beach house serves as a racial barrier. White people won’t walk much further past it. What similar examples can you think of that exist today or in your own community? How have racial barriers changed in the last 20 years? How are they still the same?

4. The emergence of hip-hop is a strong influence in the lives of Benji and his friends. In what ways does music affect their generation? In what ways has music affected your own life?

5. Benji grapples with his identity throughout the novel. At one point he states:

“According to the world we were the definition of a paradox: black boys with beach houses. A paradox to the outside, but it never occurred to us that there was anything strange about it.” (Pg. 57)

How is this community a paradox? How is Benji’s identity shaped by the two worlds he inhabits, both during the school year, and then during the summer season?

6. Benji often refers to the handshake, song, and/or dance he will surely conquer by the “end” of the summer. To what degree is he constantly trying to reinvent himself?

7. What do you think are the characteristics of a typical 1980’s adolescent? How does Benji fit the stereotype? How is he different?

8. Benji clearly realizes toward the end of the summer that what he loves, is perhaps not the girls he pines after, but his beach home and “what he put into it.” He reflects back on a tender moment with his family and the fond memories of being a child. What is it about our childhoods that evoke such special memories within us? Is there a place from your own past that touched your life as Sag Harbor touched Benji?

9. Throughout the novel there looms a hint of darkness behind the relationship between Benji’s father and his family. His father seems to have a violent strain. How does this affect Benji and his family? What is the role of the father in a young man’s coming of age?

10. From Catcher in the Rye to Stand By Me, the coming-of-age novel is a perennial in American literature. What do you think is so appealing and universal about this genre?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Random House. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.