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Sag Harbor Paperback – June 15, 2010

3.6 out of 5 stars 110 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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.

The latest book club pick from Oprah
"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead is a magnificent novel chronicling a young slave's adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South. See more

Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; 1 Reprint edition (June 15, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307455165
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307455161
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (110 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #22,039 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A. Ross HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 23, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I picked up Whitehead's first book (The Intuitionist) when it came out about a decade ago, mainly because I thought the author's name was interesting. Little did I know I'd stumbled across one of the best debut novels I've ever read. Next was the flawed but enjoyable John Henry Days, followed by the relatively light but still enjoyable Apex Hides the Hurt. Now, with his fourth novel, Whitehead finally turns autobiographical, and while his prose is as dexterous as ever, the book never really comes together.

Set in 1985, the story follows 15-year-old Benji over the course of a summer in Sag Harbor. He's a perennial outsider, a black kid at a Mahattan prep school, whose social scene revolves around Bar Mitzvahs, D&D sessions, horror movies, and punk and post-punk music. However, during the summers, the family heads to the family house at Sag Harbor where he's in the midst of a cadre of black friends whom he never sees during the school year. With that context, it should come as no surprise that the book shares the same dominant theme as Whitehead's three other novels -- race and identity.

However, unlike those books, there's almost no story to speak of. The reader merely tags along with Benji as he whiles away the summer, doing typical stupid teenage boy stuff, trying to fit in and trying to manage the transition from kid to adult. While this is a pretty good representation of teen angst, it's not that compelling.
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. . .Your body is engulfed by chemicals of rage and despair, you pound, you shriek, you batter your head against the trees. You come away wounded, feeling that life is unknowable, can never be understood, only endured and sometimes cheated." Garrison Keilor

Like Benji, the protagonist of Colson Whitehead's "Sag Harbor", I grew up in New York City. The city was my playground. My friends and I wandered the streets, went from playground to playground to play basketball, stickball, or roller hockey. We'd take the subway to Coney Island and spend days on the beach, on the boardwalk and on the amusement park rides. When we were feeling particularly frisky we'd head over to Riis Park at Far Rockaway and try to get a gander at the nude sunbathers. We'd rarely see our parents between sunrise and sunset. I felt in my element. This was my world. Then, when I hit 13 I was sent away to a boarding school. Right when I hit adolescence I was lifted up out of one world and placed by my parents in a new, ostensibly better world. The people I met were alien to me and the disaffection I felt at not quite fitting in was palpable. I spent 9 months longing to return to my universe but when I did I found that being in my old, more comfortable world, did not relive me of the unfettered angst of being a teenager or make me comfortable in a new world where girls, music, Colt 45 Malt liquor and the improbable dream of `becoming a man' still made each day one filled with a mixture of unease and anticipation.

In a very real way this is the same world Benji inhabits. Benji spends 9 months of the year at a Manhattan prep school, a world unlike the middle class world he grew up in.
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the summer they were 14 and 15, not your average black teenagers, as young boys their school clothes were blazers and corduroy jackets from brook brothers young mens department. later they attended a prep school and bar mitzvahs. after memorial day they were out of manhattan and at the family beach house in the hamptons, sag harbor. they were summer people, black summer people. this isn't new fictional territory. dorothy west set her fiction in the island upper middle class black enclave of oak bluffs, martha's vineyard, and in the novel, love, toni morrison wrote of a black resort hotel on the east coast.

the year 1985, the narrator, ben cooper, looks back. their older sister was in college, and once in college you no longer summered on the beach, not until you have children of your own, benji and his younger brother, reggie, were alone at the beach house, until their parents arrived on the weekends. teenage boys, gangling limbs and braces on teeth, with summer jobs, when not working they filled time watching tv and with their black friends playing video games, shooting bb guns, fighting, finding ways to get beer, on the lookout for girls, and scheming to get into concerts.

as the story stretches on you want to keep reading the often told story of growing up familiar to most of us, compelled by the storytelling of colson whitehead of the bright summer season's darkening and ending with labor day, with humor winding down to pathos.
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