Sag Harbor
  • Sag Harbor
  • Sag Harbor

Sag Harbor

3.4 116
by Colson Whitehead

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"The year is 1985. Benji Cooper is one of the few black students at an elite prep school in Manhattan. He spends his falls and winters going to roller-disco bar mitzvahs, playing too much Dungeons and Dragons, and trying to catch glimpses of nudity on late-night cable TV. After a tragic mishap on his first day of high school - when Benji reveals his deep enthusiasm…  See more details below


"The year is 1985. Benji Cooper is one of the few black students at an elite prep school in Manhattan. He spends his falls and winters going to roller-disco bar mitzvahs, playing too much Dungeons and Dragons, and trying to catch glimpses of nudity on late-night cable TV. After a tragic mishap on his first day of high school - when Benji reveals his deep enthusiasm for the horror movie magazine Fangoria - his social doom is sealed for the next four years." "But every summer, Benji escapes to the Hamptons, to Sag Harbor, where a small community of African American professionals have built a world of their own. Because their parents come out only on weekends, Benji and his friends are left to their own devices for three glorious months. And although he's just as confused about this all-black refuge as he is about the white world he negotiates the rest of the year, he thinks that maybe this summer things will be different. If all goes according to plan, that is." There will be trials and tribulations, of course. There will be complicated new handshakes to fumble through and state-of-the-art profanity to master. He will be tested by contests big and small, by his misshapen haircut (which seems to have a will of its own), by the New Coke Tragedy of '85, and by his secret Lite FM addiction. But maybe, with a little luck, things will turn out differently this summer.

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Editorial Reviews

Whitehead's delicious language and sarcastic, clever voice fit this teenager who's slowly constructing himself. Sag Harbor is not "How I became a writer"; there's no hint of Benji's destiny beyond his sharp-eyed way of looking at things, his writerly voice and his desire to provide a historical and sociological context for blacks in the Hamptons. Still, with the story meandering like a teenager's attention, the book feels more like a memoir than a traditional plot-driven novel. It's easy to come away thinking not much happens—Whitehead has said as much—but Sag Harbor mirrors life, which is also plotless. 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.
—The New York Times Book Review
Janet Maslin
[Whitehead] captures the fireflies of teenage summertime in a jar without pretending to have some larger purpose…What's best about Sag Harbor is the utter and sometimes mortifying accuracy of its descriptive details…And given the minefield of social and cultural choices that Benji and his friends must navigate, Sag Harbor has unusually good reason to dwell on minutiae.
—The New York Times
Ron Charles
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. But plot is the least of Whitehead's concerns here. Charm alone drives most of these chapters, the seductive voice of a narrator as clever as he is self-deprecating, moving from one comic anecdote to the next with infectious delight in his own memories.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

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.
Library Journal

Fifteen-year-old Benji has spent every summer since he can remember in Sag Harbor, NY. The rest of the year, he's a black preppie from Manhattan, with a doctor father and a lawyer mother and a younger brother, Reggie. It is 1985, and Reggie gets a job at Burger King, leaving Benji (who would prefer to be called Ben) to hang with his summer friends (the term posse wasn't invented yet), other black prep school refugees. Not a lot happens during those three months. Or does everything happen, all that matters to an insecure, nerdy teen just beginning to recognize the man he might become? Scooping ice cream at Jonni Waffle, riding to the "white beach" with the one guy who's got a car, trying to crash a Lisa Lisa concert at the hip club, and kissing a girl and copping a feel are significant events in a life that encompasses generations of folks who called Sag Harbor home. Wonderful, evocative writing, as always, from Whitehead (Apex Hides the Hurt); male readers especially will relate. Highly recommended. [Prepub Alert, LJ12/08.]
—Bette-Lee Fox

Kirkus Reviews
Another surprise from an author who never writes the same novel twice. Though Whitehead has earned considerable critical acclaim for his earlier work-in particular his debut (The Intuitionist, 1999) and its successor (John Henry Days, 2001)-he'll likely reach a wider readership with his warmest novel to date. Funniest as well, though there have been flashes of humor throughout his writing. The author blurs the line between fiction and memoir as he recounts the coming-of-age summer of 15-year-old Benji Cooper in the family's summer retreat of New York's Sag Harbor. "According to the world, we were the definition of paradox: black boys with beach houses," writes Whitehead. Caucasians are only an occasional curiosity within this idyll, and parents are mostly absent as well. Each chapter is pretty much a self-contained entity, corresponding to a rite of passage: getting the first job, negotiating the mysteries of the opposite sex. There's an accident with a BB gun and plenty of episodes of convincing someone older to buy beer, but not much really happens during this particular summer. Yet by the end of it, Benji is well on his way to becoming Ben, and he realizes that he is a different person than when the summer started. He also realizes that this time in his life will eventually live only in memory. There might be some distinctions between Benji and Whitehead, though the novelist also spent his youthful summers in Sag Harbor and was the same age as Benji in 1985, when the novel is set. Yet the first-person narrator has the novelist's eye for detail, craft of character development and analytical instincts for sharp social commentary. Not as thematically ambitious as Whitehead's earlier work,but a whole lot of fun to read.
From the Publisher
“Warm and funny, carefully observed, and beautifully written. . . . Whitehead seems to be having the time of his life.” —The Boston Globe

“Sag Harbor is a kind of black ‘Brighton Beach memoirs’. . . . The novel’s eight chapters are, in effect, masterful short stories [that] riff on the essential quests of teenage boys: BB guns, nude beaches, beer and, above all, the elusive secret to fitting in.” —The Washington Post
“Delicious.” —The New York Times Book Review

"Whitehead has tapped the most classic summer-novel activity of all: nostalgia. . . . The pleasure is in the way Whitehead recalls it, in loving and lingering detail.” —Time

“Surges and sings. . . . Stokes our emotions and intellect at once.” —Dallas Morning News
“Weaves a spell that is by turns enchanting, mood-shifting, and side-splitting.” —Elle
“Lyrical and hilarious.” —Philadelphia City Paper

“By acknowledging that adolescence’s indignities are universal, and that the search for self is endless, Sag Harbor brings this truth home.” —Vanity Fair

“Beautifully written.” —Details

“Imagine a younger version of Bill Cosby, only more lyrical and far racier, with added literary and sociocultural references at his disposal and a greater familiarity with what the book terms ‘the insistent gray muck that was pop culture’ as it seeped through the ‘80s.” —Newsday

“Whitehead has a David Foster Wallace-esque knack for punctuating meticulously figurative constructions with deadpan slacker wit.” —The Los Angeles Times

“All of Whitehead's previous books were various degrees of funny, and Sag Harbor is funnier than all three combined.” —The Village Voice
 “[J]ust as Benji is in the process of remaking himself, one gets the feeling after reading Sag Harbor that Whitehead is taking his first artistic steps away from what has come to be expected from ‘Colson Whitehead.’ And it's safe to say, we're happy, and very lucky, to have both the who he was and the who he'll become out there, telling us like it is.”  —The San Francisco Chronicle
“[A] wise, affectionate novel.” —The Washington Post
“Ebullient, supremely confident.”  —The San Diego Union-Tribune

“He can write sentences like nobody’s business, and the deepest satisfaction in this book full of them is his crafty turn of phrase.”  —Bloomberg News

“Effortlessly readable. . . . Masterful at re-creating the organized chaos of the teenage mind.” —Cleveland Plain Dealer

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.60(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Notions of Roller-Rink Infinity

First you had to settle the question of out. When did you get out? Asking this was showing off, even though anyone you could brag to had received the same gift and had come by it the same way you did. Same sun wrapped in shiny paper, same soft benevolent sky, same gravel road that sooner or later skinned you. It was hard not to believe it belonged to you more than anyone else, made for you and waiting all these years for you to come along. Everyone felt that way. We were grateful just to be standing there in that heat after such a long bleak year in the city. When did you get out? was the sound of our trap biting shut; we took the bait year after year, pure pinned joy in the town of Sag Harbor.

Then there was the next out: How long are you out for?—and the competition had begun. The magic answer was Through Labor Day or The Whole Summer. Anything less was to signal misfortune. Out for a weekend at the start of the season, to open up the house, sweep cracks, that was okay. But only coming out for a month? A week? What was wrong, were you having financial difficulties? Everyone had financial difficulties, sure, but to let it interfere with Sag, your shit was seriously amiss. Out for a week, a month, and you were allowing yourself to be cheated by life. Ask, How long are you out for? and a cloud wiped the sun. The question trailed a whiff of autumn. All answers contemplated the end, the death of summer at its very beginning. Still waiting for the bay to warm up so you could go for a swim and already picturing it frozen over. Labor Day suddenly not so far off at all.

The final out was one-half information-gathering and one-half prayer: Who else is out? The season had begun, we were proof of it, instrument of it, but things couldn't really get started until all the players took their marks, bounding down driveways, all gimme-fives. The others were necessary, and we needed word. The person standing before you in pleated salmon shorts might say, "I talked to him on Wednesday and he said they were coming out." They were always the first ones out, never missed June like their lives depended on it. (This was true.) Someone might offer, "Their lawn was cut." A cut lawn was an undeniable omen of impending habitation, today or tomorrow. "Saw a car in their driveway." Even better. There was no greater truth than a car in a driveway. A car in the driveway was an invitation to knock on the door and get down to the business of summer. Knock on that door and watch it relent under your knuckles—once you were out, the door stayed unlocked until you closed up the house.

Once we're all out, we can begin.

My name is Ben. In the summer of 1985 I was fifteen years old. My brother, Reggie, was fourteen. As for when we got out, we got out that morning, hour and a half flat, having beat the traffic. Over the course of a summer, you heard a lot of different strategies of how to beat the traffic, or at least slap it around a little. There were those who ditched the office early on Friday afternoon, casually letting their co-workers know the reason for their departure in order to enjoy a little low-pressure envy. Others headed back to the city late Sunday evening, choking every last pulse of joy from the weekend with cocoa-buttered hands. They stopped to grab a bite and watched the slow red surge outside the restaurant window while dragging clam strips through tartar sauce—soon, soon, not yet—until the coast was clear.

My father's method was easy and brutal—hit the road at five in the morning so that we were the only living souls on the Long Island Expressway, making a break for it in the haunted dark. Every so often my mother said, "There's no traffic," as if it were a miracle. Well, it wasn't really dark, June sunrises are up and at 'em, but I always remember those drives that way—memory has a palette and broad brush. Perhaps I remember it that way because my eyes were closed most of the time. The trick of those early-morning jaunts was to wake up just enough to haul a bag of clothes down to the car, nestle in, and then retreat back into sleep. Any unnecessary movement might exile you from the realm of half asleep and into the bleary half awake, so my brother and I did a zombie march slow and mute until we hit the backseat, where we turned into our separate nooks, sniffing upholstery, butt to butt, more or less looking like a Ror_schach test. What do you see in this picture? Two brothers going off in different directions.

We had recently ceased to be twins. We were born ten months apart and until I went to high school we came as a matched set, more Siamese than fraternal or identical, defined by an uncanny inseparability. Joined not at the hip or spleen or nervous system but at that more important place—that spot on your self where you meet the world.

There was something in the human DNA that compelled people to say "Benji 'n' Reggie, Benji 'n' Reggie" in a singsong way, as if we were cartoon characters or mascots of some twenty-five-cent candy. On the rare occasions we were caught alone, the first thing people asked was "Where's Benji?" or "Where's Reggie?," whereupon we delivered a thorough account of our other's whereabouts, quickly including context as if embarrassed to be caught out in the sunlight with only half a shadow: "He rode into town. He lost his CAT Diesel Power cap at the beach and went to get a new one at the five-and-ten." And the questioner nodded solemnly: Reggie's love for his CAT Diesel Power cap, fostered by '70s trucker movies, was well-known.

There was summer, and then there was the rest of the time. During the rest of the time, before we were separated, you could find us modeling gear from the Brooks Brothers Young Men's Department—smart white Oxford shirts, for example, tucked in during school hours, flapping in soft rebellion when we were home. The elementary school we went to required us to wear jackets and ties, so we did. Our wrists inevitably outran our jacket sleeves despite our mother's attempts at timely hem-jobs. The ties as a species were clip-on, but we had a few that our father tied for us at the beginning of the school year, which we then slid loose and slid tight for the next nine months, knots getting greasier and grubbier as our kiddie fingers oozed into them. We had one blue blazer and one beige corduroy jacket apiece, rotated over gray slacks and khaki pants. I was a little taller, which helped us sort out whose was whose, but not always.

What did we look like, walking down Lexington, across Sixty-second Street, side by side on our way to and from school? I remember one day in the seventh grade when an old white man stopped us on a corner and asked us if we were the sons of a diplomat. Little princes of an African country. The U.N. being half a mile away. Because—why else would black people dress like that? Looking up into his mossy teeth, I croaked a tiny "No" and tugged Reggie into the crosswalk, as my don't-talk-to-strangers/everyone-is-a-child-molester training kicked in. The TV was our babysitter, sure, so finger-wagging movies of the week were our manual on how to deal with strangers. We eagerly riffled through the literature, tsk-tsking and chuckling over tales of neglected white kids gone awry, the sad procession of zaftig and susceptible teenage hitchhikers, the pill-popping honor students turned wildcat over "the pressure to succeed." When strangers stopped us on the street asking questions, we knew what to do. Keep walking, brother. What did he look like? Senior partner in the law firm of Cracker, Cracker & Cracker. What did we look like? I don't know, but his question wasn't something we'd ever be asked in Sag Harbor. We fit in there.

Summers we branched out in our measly fashion. Freed from the dress code, what did we do? As fake twins, we couldn't shake our love of the uniform. Each day we wore the same make of shirt, but different colors, different iron-on decals. Every couple of months our mother bought us some clothes at Gimbels—security cameras capture her foraging for her cubs, murmuring "Two of these, and two of these"—and then tossed them into our cage for us to hyena-yip over who got what. Want the maroon terry-cloth shirt? Get to it first or else you'll be wearing the olive one 'til next Christmas. R2-D2 jammies for you, C-3PO for me. You had to work fast. Dibs was all.

We were a bit of a genre when you pried open a family photo album: There's Benji 'n' Reggie slouching in the beach grass, leaning on the hood of that summer's rented car, huddled on a bench outside the ice-cream parlor. One brother in a powder-blue Izod polo, the other in a crimson Izod drizzled with Rocky Road. Arms noosed around each other's necks, always wearing the same shirts but for that one crucial, differentiating detail that was everything. The same, but a little off, and it was to that crooked little corner of difference that we truly aspired.

Our expressions, picture to picture? Me: pained and dyspeptic, squinting in discomfort at the discovery of some new defect in the design of the world, the thought bubble asking, "Aren't we all just ants under the magnifying glass, really?" and "Is this the passing of our days, so much Pixy Stix dust falling in an hourglass?" The only time "early bloomer" has ever been applied to me is vis-Æ-vis my premature apprehension of the deep dread-of-existence thing. In all other cases, I plod and tromp along. My knuckles? Well dragged.

Say Cheese. And what's Reggie up to? Mugging, of course, cross-eyed, sneering, fingers bent into devil's horns, waving his dented beggar's cup for one extra ounce of precious attention, a rare element in our household. We knew we wanted to be separated but could only bear it in slim degrees. So when our father showed up with knockoff souvenirs from the 1976 Montreal Olympics, I snagged the javelin T-shirt, Reggie reached for the shot-put T-shirt, and we broke out of the locker-room tunnel into the arena of sunlight, summer after summer, members of the same team. It was nice to have a team, even if it was just us two.

Where is the surgeon gifted enough to undertake this risky operation, separate these hapless conjoined? Paging Doc Puberty, arms scrubbed, smocked to the hilt, smacking the nurses on the ass, and well-versed in all the latest techniques. More suction! Javelin and shot put—that's about right. Hormones sent me up and airborne, tall and skinny, a knock-kneed little reed, while Reggie, always chubby in the cheeks and arms, bulged out into something round and pinchable, soft and smooth, where I stuck out in sharp angles. We disentangled week by week, one new hair at a time. Junior high, they called it.

There were no complications on the physical separation, but what about the mental one, to sever the phantom connection whereby if Reggie stubbed his toe, I cried out in pain, and vice versa? The moment of my psychic release was occasioned by Liza Finkelstein's eighth-grade roller-disco party in the spring of '83.

It was bar mitzvah season, a good time to be alive by any measure, but particularly for die-hard finger-food aficionados like myself. As my friends underwent their time-honored initiation rituals, I experienced my own coming-of-age, culinary-wise. I had led a rather sheltered life with regards to bite-sized snacks, having only messed around with Mini Hot Dogs, La Choy Egg Rolls, and other lovelies of the Preheat To 350 school. The racy, catered pleasures of the full-tilt, bank-busting, don't-you-love-me bar mitzvah were a revelation. I remember marveling at the silver hors d'oeuvres trays as they dipped and flitted through the air like flying saucers out of a '50s sci-fi movie, bearing alien life forms I had never reckoned, messengers of gustatory peace and goodwill. Chicken teriyaki on skewers, Swedish meatballs squatting in brown pools, all manner of dipping sauces in dark and gluey abundance—it was dizzying, and that wasn't just the thimbles of Manischewitz talking.

I was used to being the only black kid in the room—I was only there because I had met these assorted Abes and Sarahs and Dannys in a Manhattan private school, after all—but there was something instructive about being the only black kid at a bar mitzvah. Every bar or bat mitzvah should have at least one black kid with a yarmulke hovering on his Afro—it's a nice visual joke, let's just get that out of the way, but more important it trains the kid in question to determine when people in the corner of his eye are talking about him and when they are not, a useful skill in later life when sorting out bona-fide persecution from perceived persecution, the this-is-actually-happening from the mere paranoid manifestation. "Who's that?" "Whisper whisper a friend of Andy's from school.

" "So regal and composed—he looks like a young Sidney Poitier." "Whisper whisper or the son of an African diplomat!"

Eventually I'd have some company when the occasional R&B band showed up to drag themselves through the obligatory Motown retrospective, with the inevitable "Super Freak" thrown in_._._._as Liza Finkelstein, grim and silent, squashed her place setting in her fist and cursed us all. Her parents were civil rights lawyers, not that I knew what that meant, except that it compelled Liza to blurt out "My parents were there!" on that one day a year when a teacher mentioned the March on Washington. Her parents respected all races, colors, and creeds, unless that creed was their own. According to some lefty calculus they had concluded that the traditions of their faith were bogus, and consequently Liza was going to have to wait a while before entering the world of calligraphic invitations and their little guppy RSVP envelopes.

Rebellion trickles down. Liza's "My parents were there!"s diminished in enthusiasm year by year, to be true, but I think it was bat mitzvah season, with its exuberant pageantry and lovely haul of presents, that puckered her to new pouty extremes. To be so exiled. It came to pass that one bright spring morning our hippie English teacher Mr. Johnson mentioned the March on Washington and the assembled of Homeroom 8B instinctively turned to Liza to hear her declaration for the last time. Perhaps we were feeling sentimental. We'd be in high school in a few months, split up after being together—some of us—since pre-K. This was a milestone, and we waited for Liza to give us what we needed. The moments piled up. A suspicion or fear that Liza might not provide her necessary service began to creep across the room in the same way that, gently, menthol cigarette smoke crept from under the door of the teachers' lounge. My eyes fell to her checkered New Wave knee-high socks, and I thought, Liza's not New Wave. Then she sneered a "My parents were there," rolling her eyes and kicking her feet out into the aisle between desks. Liza didn't need the whole bat mitzvah treatment. She was a teenager in that moment.

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Meet the Author

Colson Whitehead is the author of the novels The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, Apex Hides the Hurt, as well as The Colossus of New York, a book of essays about his hometown. A recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award and a MacArthur Fellowship, he lives in Brooklyn.

Brief Biography

Brooklyn, NY
Date of Birth:
November 6, 1969
Place of Birth:
New York, NY
Harvard College, BA in English & American Literature

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