Review: Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead’s fourth novel confounded me at first. Sag Harbor took me longer to sink into; it required persistence. However, sticking with it paid off and I’m glad I read it. It tells the story of 15 year old Benji Cooper, and his 1985 summer in Sag Harbor, part of The Hamptons. It seems like a coming of age story, but it really isn’t. It’s a chronicle of three months in the life of a teen who is trying to discover who he is, and how he fits into the world. No great revelation happens: he is the same kid at the end of the book as at the beginning, just three months older and with new experiences under his belt to help him on his way. This is a story of incremental growth, not a leap. Probably it’s truer to real life. Though not obvious at first, it becomes clear that the narrator is the adult Benji, looking back. There’s an air of nostalgia and melancholy here, as if the narrator is trying to look at this snapshot and figure out the puzzle of how he and his friends got from there to adulthood. To make sense of things. It’s a gentle prodding of a sleeping past.

I think that’s why it takes so long for the book to resonate. It feels as if nothing much happens as Benji goes through his days, hanging out with his summer Sag Harbor friends, getting his first job at Jonni Waffle, kissing a girl for the first time. But reading through, there is an arc, an evolution here. There is much to be learned from prodding the memories.

At the beginning of summer, out on the beach, Benji says:
“…this day was one in a long series. We had been doing this for years, making adjustments at the beginning of the summer, finetuning…Figuring out the next version of each other…We didn’t change all that much from year to year, we just became more ourselves. Where were we the next summer? A few inches closer to it.”
The struggle for Benji is the evolution of his identity: what does it mean to be Black in America in the 1980s. He’s torn between the dominant White culture in the city, where he attends a private school that’s mostly White, and hanging out with his Black friends in the summer in Sag Harbour. He’s so confounded that when he encounters things in Black culture that he thinks he should know—Who is W.E.B. DuBois? How do the complicated hand greetings between his Black friends work?—that he feels he can’t ask for being seen as not Black enough.

A long chapter entitled, “If I Could Pay You Less I Would” (talking to you, minimum wage!) tells of Benji’s first job at an ice cream shop. He deals with the hordes of summer people descending on the shop in search of ice cream every day. He likens them to Zombies: “I know now that when the living dead come, it will not be at the mall that they gather but at the ice-cream shop.”
“The smell of the waffle cones drew them inside, the same way we had caught minnows with old sheets and bedspreads—they flung themselves toward the open seas of their desire. They wore flip-flops that smacked like wet lips, they shuffled forward in tasseled loafers…”
There are the threats from outside the shop’s plexiglass windows, but there’s emotional treachery within too. Benji and the largely Black teen employees debate fiercely as to whether or not shop owner Martine, who hails from Dominican Republic, is Black or White. It is ambiguous. Martine, congratulating Benji on a job well done, pats him on the head, which is a huge transgression if Martine is White, and okay if he’s Black. Another binary to negotiate, all while being ribbed by his friends who saw the incident. One night, during a blackout, Benji steals back into the shop and opens the freezer doors, sabotaging the ice cream in a furtive act of revenge. In the end, Martine is Black. Benji’s guilt is enormous, but it was probably unavoidable: he is often in a no-win situation. “What was the point?,” Benji questions at one point in the novel. “Move. Don’t move. Act. Don’t act. The results were the same. This was my labyrinth.” He sees the melted ice cream as evidence of his guilt in his imagination:
“The cans splash out their guts, one after the other. It’s dark, no one can see it but me, I can see it, the rainbow calamity on the tile…in a cookie-clotted sludge oozing out across the floor, marshmallows floating like broken teeth, all this in a slow and ugly wave, reading toward me like a hand.”
That summer, the boys discover BB guns and play at war. Again, Benji and his friends are trying on identities as they negotiate being Black in America. “Bobby’s real-lookin’ gun allowed him to indulge his hard-rock fantasies and bury his deep prep-school weakness. Hide his grandfather’s soft features in the scowl of a thug, the thug of his inverted Weschester fantasies. A kind of blackface.” Benji is deeply uneasy about this new pass-time. The adult Benji—the narrator—says:
"I’d like to say, all these years later…that the game wasn’t so innocent after all. But it’s not true. 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 our different ways. Some of us with real guns, some of us with more ephemeral weapons, an idea or improbable plan or some sort of formulation about how best to move through the world. Protect us and keep us safe. But a weapon nonetheless.”
All this makes me wonder how autobiographical this might be for Whitehead. I have no reason to think that it is, but he has chosen to wield the pen as his weapon, to great effect.

This novel evokes a sense of nostalgia for our younger selves. When we are young, we are less defined. There are so many paths to adulthood and each day, each encounter, and each experience, even if not remarkable at the time, nudges us towards our ultimate becoming. As adults, we can still change, but our options are more limited. In middle age, I’m still trying on identities, but at this point, it's more a matter of adding something new or different to an already formed whole.

The arc of the summer ends on Labor Day weekend, with the yearly Sag Harbor block party. For Benji’s adult self, nostalgia reigns: “I was nostalgic for everything big and small. Nostalgic for what never happened and nostalgic about what will be, looking forward to looking back on a time when things got easier.”

I don’t know. I read and reread that quote, and I don’t love the sentiment. There is a deep sense of melancholy at the end of the novel, a longing for the past. A clinging. At the beginning of the book the narration felt like a chronicle and at the end it felt like loss. There’s nothing wrong with that, but for most of us there is no time when you can look back and things “got easier.” Life forever presents new challenges. Things are always changing, some for better and some for worse. Perhaps I need to take the “better or worse” out of it too: things just change.

That said, the end of the novel presented not an ending, but more an end of one cycle of life. Benji’s story is a snapshot of three months in his life that nudges him towards his future, but the story of Sag Harbor is one of cyclicity. This rings of truth; it’s appropriate that we grow, change and age. Benji looks over the crowd at the Labor Day festivities and muses:

“We were all there. It was where we mingled with who we had been and who we would be. The shy kid we used to be and were growing away from, the confident or hard-luck men we would become in our impending seasons, the elderly survivors we’d grow into if we were lucky…The generations replacing and replenishing each other.”

This, more than nostalgia, I can get on board with. Maybe I’m just protecting myself against the wistfulness of nostalgia, but this inevitable moving forward in a perpetual cycle seems true and real, and eases the sadness of loss.


I’ve been thinking about the process of reading Sag Harbor. I may not have stuck with it if I hadn’t been forced to for my Author in Depth series. It was, as usual for Whitehead, well written and thoughtful, but slow at times. I thought it mildly indulgent with the telling of long, detailed stories without the hard-driving metaphors of his first three books. It could have used a stricter editor, I thought. But in the end, it was very good, and reading with the intention of writing a review about the book made me ponder the stories more deeply. So, I wonder about attention spans, my own included, and about what we’re willing to give to a book to gather meaning from it. I was talking to a new bookish friend Christina who lamented the death of reading effortfully, playfully calling some of the reading these days “the Netflixisation of reading.” I’m all for whatever gets people reading, and I love a good escapist read for sure, but this book–and this year of reading with more intention–makes me take her words seriously. There’s room for easy, effortless reading, but I realize, at least for me, disciplining myself to take up more challenging reading is going to be key. Another “identity” I can try on as I evolve.


Author in Depth: Colson Whitehead Edition!