Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead is a quiet book with a strong undercurrent. It takes place in the summer of 1985 in a section of the Hamptons that was the summer home of wealthy African American families, a place where everybody knew everybody else (and probably knew your mother and grandmother before you).
Benji and his brother, Reggie, have been spending their summers at Sag Harbor all their lives, but the summer of 1985 is a little different. The boys are alone all week long while their parents are in the city, coming out only on weekends. For three months they have huge amounts of freedom and virtually no supervision.
During the school year, Benji attends a mostly-white prep school in the city. He’s smart and funny and accepted, pretty much. During the summer, he sees lifelong friends, all from black professional families, who have learned new handshakes and are into different music than he is. Fitting in and teenage awkwardness are relatable themes in this coming of age story.
Benji and Reggie, formerly attached at the hip and never spotted one without the other, each get their first jobs- Benji at Johnny Waffle, and Reggie at Burger King. Their time together is limited due to different work schedules. Benji is trying to reinvent himself this summer and have his friends call him Ben, without much success. He’s a veteran of a single hand-holding incident with a rollerskating member of the opposite sex, but is by no means a ladies man. He’s got some status in his group of friends because he has the empty, parentless house, but still.. he’s not the one with the car, or the cool one. He’s a nerdy kid who is regularly embarrassed, wears braces, likes easy listening music, and has a bad afro.
I was really charmed by this book. It has some really funny moments and lots of references to 1980’s culture. It was interesting and exceptionally well written, even though not a lot happens. It’s more like a series of snapshots, with each chapter being quite self contained. There is some insight into mid-80’s race relations that made me think, and a small amount of darkness and family drama. But mostly it’s a story of what Benji did on his summer vacation.
This book resonated with me because our family visits the same lake community every summer. Like Benji, we see the same families year in and year out. The first couple of days are exciting- who’s here, who will be here for the 4th of July, the grass is cut so maybe they’ll be out this weekend, etc. Then it’s on to- who’s gotten taller, who’s too old to play at the beach, what is still cool to do and what is not, who has a cell phone (or an iPod, or a Wii), who’s riding bikes, who’s driving. The kids go their own way, doing kid things, and time folds in on itself. The grown ups fire up BBQ’s and have a few beers and catch up on each other’s lives- who’s gotten married/getting divorced/cheating on their spouse/losing their job, etc., and not paying a whole lot of attention to what the kids are up to. The book is like that. It’s funny, sweet, sometimes sad. It has a meandering feel to it, like a long summer day. I enjoyed it.
Here’s a funny video of Colson Whitehead talking about Sag Harbor: