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Sag Harbor Paperback – June 15, 2010
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Amazon Best of the Month, May 2009: Like his fellow New Yorker Jonathan Lethem, Colson Whitehead weaves gracefully through genres with each of his books, but Sag Harbor, billed as his "autobiographical fourth novel," seems positioned to be his breakout book--which is a funny thing for a writer who has already received so many major literary awards, including a MacArthur "Genius" grant and being short-listed for the Pulitzer.
The year is 1985 and 15-year-old Benji Cooper, one of the only black students at his elite Manhattan private school, leaves the city to spend three largely unsupervised months living with his younger brother Reggie in an enclave of Long Island's Sag Harbor, the summer home to many African American urban professionals. Benji's a Converse-wearing, Smiths-loving, Dungeons & Dragons-playing nerd whose favorite Star Wars character is the hapless bounty hunter Greedo (rather than the double-crossing Lando Calrissian). But Sag Harbor is a coming-of-age novel whose plot side-steps life-changing events writ large. The book's leisurely eight chapters mostly concern Benji's first kiss, the removal of braces, BB gun battles, slinging insults (largely unprintable "grammatical acrobatics") with his friends, and working his first summer job. And Whitehead crafts a wonderful set piece describing Benji's days at Jonni Waffle Ice Cream, where he is shrouded in "waffle musk" and a dirty T-shirt that's "soiled, covered with batter and befudged from a sundae mishap."
Whitehead pushes his love of pop culture into hyper-drive. Nearly every page is swimming with references to the 1980s--from New Coke and The Cosby Show to late nights trying to decipher flickering glimpses of naked women on scrambled Cinemax. And music courses through the book, capturing that period when early hip hop mixed with New Wave. Lisa Lisa and U.T.F.O make a memorable cameo at Jonni Waffle, and McFadden & Whitehead's "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now"--heard throughout the book in passing cars and boom boxes--gets tagged as "the black national anthem." Like that ubiquitous song, the soulful, celebratory, and painfully funny Sag Harbor and its chronicle of those lazy, sun-soaked days sandwiched between Memorial Day and Labor Day, will stick with you long after closing its covers. --Brad Thomas Parsons
Amazon Exclusive: Jonathan Lethem Reviews Sag Harbor
Jonathan Lethem's new novel, Chronic City, will be published in October 2009, and is his first to be set in Manhattan. He is the author of seven novels including the New York Times bestseller The Fortress of Solitude, which was also a New York Times Book Review Editors Choice for 2003, and Motherless Brooklyn, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1999. A recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, his stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and the New York Times among others. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and Maine.
First, an immodest disclaimer: I knew Colson Whitehead was really, really good before you did. That's because we share a publisher, and an editor, and I was sent a copy of his first novel, The Intuitionist, and asked to give advance comment--"a pufferoon," as insiders affectionately call the things--which I gladly did. In fact, I not only admired The Intuitionist, but it was a book that made me immediately feel less lonely. I'd published four novels at that point, and Colson's helped me to feel my particular approach, the sorts of things I was trying to pull off in my novels, wasn't absolutely misconceived. In fact, I wanted to hitch my wagon to Colson's obvious rising star; his first novel was more flawless, more accomplished, than my own first--it might have been more accomplished than my fourth, I wasn't sure. I immediately sought Colson out as a friend, and he's been one of my own most crucial peers ever since.
Colson's books are all quite different from one another in milieu, strategy, and their ultimate effect on the reader, though united by the signal laconic meter in his voice, by their keen sense of form and proportion, by their brilliance. In Sag Harbor he's "gone personal," though I wouldn't want to have to place bets on what is and isn't his own life-material here, or someone else's, or completely confabulated. This is one of my favorite kinds of books, where memory's kinesthetic floodgates open up to illuminate a lost world. It's like a meticulous diorama of the recent past, with the sharp edges of an exhibit in a museum, one where we learn just how strange and specific the universal experience of "coming of age" really can be. The mundane stuff of a Long Island summer here has the power both of a time capsule, and of an allegorical journey into what every human heart endures just trying to vault out of one's family and into the world of art, sex, and kinship that's so near, and so far off. All this, plus the greatest barbequed chicken wing in the history of literature past, present, or future. That's a pufferoon I'd guarantee with my life. --Jonathan Lethem
More from Colson Whitehead
Set over the summer of 1985, Sag Harbor, the fourth book from award-winning writer Colson Whitehead, is steeped in 1980s pop culture. Music plays a vital role in the novel, and in this exclusive annotated playlist Whitehead compiles a lineup of nine essential tracks of the early MTV era, including highlights from The Smiths, Run DMC, Bauhaus, and Doug E Fresh and Slick Rick.
And read our interview with Colson Whitehead as we talk about Sag Harbor and discuss some pop culture hits and misses from the 1980s, grilling tips, McFadden & Whitehead, 12-sided die, and the allure of Twitter.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In what Whitehead describes as his Autobiographical Fourth Novel (as opposed to the more usual autobiographical first novel), the author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist John Henry Days explores the in-between space of adolescence through one boy's summer in a predominantly black Long Island neighborhood. Benji and Reggie, brothers so closely knit that many mistake them for twins, have been coming out to Sag Harbor for as long as they can remember. For Benji, each three-month stay at Sag is a chance to catch up with friends he doesn't see the rest of the year, and to escape the social awkwardness that comes with a bad afro, reading Fangoria, and being the rare African-American student at an exclusive Manhattan prep school. As he and Reggie develop separate identities and confront new factors like girls, part-time jobs and car-ownership, Benji struggles to adapt to circumstances that could see him joining the ranks of Those Who Don't Come Out Anymore. Benji's funny and touching story progresses leisurely toward Labor Day, but his reflections on what's gone before provide a roadmap to what comes later, resolving social conflicts that, at least this year, have yet to explode. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
As someone (an up-islander) who's spent time in Sag Harbor since the mid-1970's, tying up a dinghy to the Long Wharf dock, then rushing across the asphalt to the Waffle-Cone shop in the hopes of reducing the sweat pouring off me, I'm finding this book touches on very familiar places. There has been a screaming need, for many years, for a definitive written account of what the "Season" does to a small East End Town from the perspective of a working townie, or in Ben's case, a long-term Summer Townie. Anyone who's risked life and limb, crossing the street to the Corner Bar will feel right at home. Sag Harbor, an honest, working town, deserves this more than any I can think of. It's also a place that I love dearly.
The device the author uses to elicit our empathy, the mind of a teenage boy laid bare to expose its mechanical processes, will keep readers in the loop on this one. This is not a quick snack. It's a full meal, best read on an empty stomach. It has the grace to illustrate the yearning soul of a tourist town that is mostly just seen as surface gloss. Sag residents, especially those with some history in the place, will undoubtedly receive this book with the good humor,love and longing that pours off the pages.
Did I mention profoundly moving? I'm not sure I can adequately describe how universal Benji's gradual awakening to the reality of his life is to anyone who was once an awkward teenage boy. We all have had that one, crystalline night when we discovered who we really were.
For those, like myself, of an older generation, Jean Shepherd's narrative work comes to mind, but the author takes it much further. Though the decade and the cultural angle are very different than my own, the author's easy, good-natured ability to paint a loving picture of one Summer Life, with all it's warts and tics, will keep Colson Whitehead in my list of writers I'd like to drink a beer with.
The narrative meanders along and at times the descriptions are so long that it feels indulgent and calling out for an editor. This is most apparent in (but unfortunately not limited to) the scene where the main character describes all the types of people that come into the ice cream shop where he works; it goes on for many pages (I read it on kindle so not I am not sure how many, just too many) and it works for a few paragraphs before it just gets annoying. I also found some parts of the book rather confusing. It would jump ahead to the "present time" and say how things worked out or talk about subsequent or previous summers and then, I guess, go back to the particular summer that was the focus of the book. But I wasn't always sure about this, what age the Benji character was, what the year was, and where all the stories fit in relation to each other.
Still, I found many of the stories to be very funny. I would remember them later and have my husband read particular passages because I thought he would also find them funny. Overall, I liked the characters and the stories and the writing, but it bored me in between these funny stories. It wasn't the kind of book I couldn't put down or wanted to keep reading after my subway ride was over, walking down the street with it, trying not to get run over, like I have with other books. I actually read it during a long "vacation" weekend and even with little else to do I didn't always pick it up when I could. So in the end, I suppose three stars is about right. Maybe 3.5 if I had the option - because I do think it's well-written and the characters are mostly likeable and there are some very funny bits and some relateable pieces. I don't consider the days I spent reading this book to be a waste of time, but having read many good things about this book, I expected more.