Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead – Book Review

Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

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.

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This review was done with a book passed on to me by a friend.
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12 comments to Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead – Book Review

  • Doesn’t sound like something I would like. Sometimes I am entertained by the antics of adolescent boys, but it sounds like Sag harbor just doesn’t have enough to hold my attention.

  • I have been on the fence about reading Sag Harbor. Now I think I’ll bury it a bit farther down in the TBR. I’ll likely give it a try, I just won’t rush right out and pick it up.

  • I felt the same way about the book as you and I’m really glad to see that because every other review I’ve read has raved over it.

  • Amy

    Hmmm too bad about this book. To be honest it doesn’t look like one that would immediately make me pick it up in a book store either, so I won’t add this to the wish list. Sometimes when the author comments in with the retrospective remarks it works really well, other times though it just falls flat, I find.

  • When I first saw this book, I was excited. I lived on Long Island in 1985 and I thought I would get a kick out of some references. But once I flipped through it, I just wasn’t interested. It got some really good rewiews though, so it is still on my wish list, and I may try to read it again one day.

  • When this one first came out, the critics were raving about it. But I’ve read more and more reviews that, like you, were much less impressed. I think I’ll be taking this off the wishlist.

  • Sydna

    I couldn’t get through it. I think I read like 30 pages and THAT was a struggle. I finally gave up. Too many good books worth reading!

  • From the comments above, and from other reviews, I don’t think you are alone. I will pass on this one!

  • I actually spent a lot of time growing up in Sag Harbor. The town itself is not an African-American hub but the area of Sag Harbor that the boys in this book lived in is a traditionally African-American part of town – a lot of the African American professionals from the city (like Reggie’s parents) specifically bought homes in this neighborhood. And Sag Harbor is actually in the Hamptons – it is situated in between Bridgehampton, Southampton and Easthampton – right in the middle.

    I liked the book generally but only because I knew exactly where everything was and everything about the area. The plot was pretty aimless though!

  • Hmm….I’m moving this one further down on the review copy pile. Thanks for the honest review!!

  • I thought this book was ok as I was reading it, but then I came to enjoy it more when I was thinking back on it and writing my review of it. The plot doesn’t have much to it, but I liked the characters and I really liked how detailed the setting was. I still remember the details of the tone and mood of the book and I read it last summer.

    • I definitely agree about the tone and mood, I think my thing is I didn’t like the characters. I mean, I didn’t DISlike them, but I didn’t really care about them. I have a low threshold of patience for large groups of boys doing stupid things, I think.