Benji and his brother Reggie are so close in age that, at one time, they considered themselves virtual twins. Every summer they leave their elite prep school where they are some of the only African-American students and summer in Sag Harbor, the largely African-American beach community abutting The Hamptons.
And honestly, there’s not a whole lot more to the plot than that. “Sag Harbor” is a semi-autobiographical novel depicting Benji’s summer of 1985 when he was about 15. He and his friends have some fun – including doing incredibly stupid things like a BB gun fight – work, pine after girls, and generally act like largely unsupervised teenage boys. At the same time, Benji is dealing with the reality of his father’s abusive alcoholism and the fact that not so deep down he’s a big nerd and everyone at his school knows it, thanks to the fact that he talks too loudly about Dungeons and Dragons.
Overall I really just wasn’t feeling this book. For one thing, I wasn’t invested enough in Benji to really care about his summer adventures. For another thing, there were a lot of retrospective remarks from Benji’s adult self who is narrating the story that were never really followed up on, like this example on page 158:
We always fought for real. Only the nature of the fight changed. It always will. As time went on, we learned to arm ourselves in different ways. Some of us with real guns, some of us with more ephemeral weapons, an idea or improbably plan or some sort of formulation about how best to move through the world.
There was just far too much of that sort of thing for my taste, particularly when I wasn’t invested in the book in the first place. The whole thing seemed somewhat over-written for me, surprising for such a short novel. I did, however, really appreciate what Whitehead had to say, through Benji, about the tension between the dominant white middle-class culture that Benji lived in physically and the black culture that he was told or felt that he should fit into.
All in all, not a bad novel by any means, but one that, 90% of the time, didn’t really hold my attention.