Sag Harbor (Review)

Labels: A Lighter Touch


Sag Harbor
Colson Whitehead, 2009
288 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
January 2010

At 15 Benji Cooper is a nerd—someone forgot to leave him the instruction manual on cool. He fumbles the latest handshakes, wears braces and a "f**ked up" haircut, loves Dungeon and Dragons and Easy Listen' music. Worse, he's never kissed a girl and can't get anyone to call him "Ben."

Benji is an African-American who attends an all-white private school in Manhattan, but he spends his summers in the affluent black neighborhood of Sag Harbor, right around the corner (well hidden, of course) from the uppity-upscale white Hamptonites.

Out from under constant white scrutiny, Sag Harbor is where Benji can feel like himself—except that he's not sure what that "self" should be. This summer, 1985, Benji makes a plan to find out.

Unlike typical coming-of-age stories, there's no big payoff at the end, no giant leap over the threshold into the grownup world. Instead, Benji's summer is composed of momentary enlightenments, random events that open the door to maturity by only a crack.

At the end of the book, our narrator—an older, wiser Benji, now "Ben"—gives us an Alice-Through-the Looking-Glass moment. Here's older Ben observing a younger Benji and telling us how he is looking for his older, future self—the adult he will someday become:

[Benji] would not recognize the man he came to be. The poor sap. I need him to figure out how I got where I am, and he needs me to reassure him that despite all he knows and has seen and feels, there is more. I can listen to him. But of course he can't hear a damn thing I'm saying.

I love this book...especially Benji's smart, hilarious, made-me-laugh-out-loud voice as he parses the many conflicting cultures around him—black, white, teen, adult, "bourgie" (bourgeoise), and hip. Oh, one more thing: a girl in the book says to Benjie and his buddies, "You use some foul language." It's true...just to warn you.

See our Reading Guide for Sag Harbor.

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