Reviewed by Sarah Goodwin-Nguyen
It’s fun to compare Colson Whitehead’s SAG HARBOR to another recent novel
about the life of a teenaged preppie, specifically PREP by Curtis Sittenfeld. Interestingly, the narrators of both novels are now in their adulthood, looking back at themselves as teenagers. However, PREP’s protagonist, Lee Fiora, is a Midwestern-Caucasion girl on scholarship in a New England boarding school, while SAG HARBOR’s Benji Cooper is an African-American boy who attends a mostly white prep school near his Manhattan home.
Whereas the reader of PREP inhabits the mind of a girl unable to “be herself” in a hostile adolescent environment, SAG HARBOR takes place in a situation where Benji feels most himself. You see, this isn’t about Benji’s life at school; it takes place in an all-black beach community in the Hamptons where Benji’s family spends summers . Though we get glimpses of Benji’s life in prep school, it seems far away and irrelevant (the way school often feels to a kid on summer break.)
Most readers will recognize themselves at fifteen in Benji. Like many fifteen-year-olds, Benji is socially awkward, too fond of junk food, and vulnerable to peer pressure. Benji will reach a few milestones that summer, such as getting his braces off and making out with a girl. He will learn a little bit about himself, and will become a little more the man he’s going to be. SAG HARBOR is not as cuttingly observant or bittersweet as PREP, relying instead on the narrator’s mostly amusing anecdotes about trying to score beer, buddy up to the guys with cars, and avoid losing an eye to a bee-bee gun.
That is not to say that SAG HARBOR doesn’t have its dark moments. Benji’s father is a drunk who is often verbally and sometimes physically abusive. Benji and his younger brother are left alone in the Hampton house for weeks at a time (it is assumed that the community will look after them;) the boys’ young lives are overshadowed by parental neglect. A surprise encounter with Benji’s estranged older sister, Elena, is particularly painful, as Elena’s hip, wise soul plays a foil to Benji’ sadly apathetic mother.
Sometimes Whitehead’s exuberant writing lingers too long and with too much hyperbole on minutiae. For example, here’s Whitehead’s narrator describing his younger self’s love for Coca-Cola: “How could one not be charmed by the effervescent joviality of a tall glass of the stuff–the manic activity of the bubbles, popping, reforming, popping anew, sliding up the inside of the glass to freedom, as if the beverage were actually, miraculously, caffeinated on itself. That tart first sip, preferably with ice knocking against the lips for an added sensory flourish, that stunned the brain into total recall of pleasure, of all the Cokes consumed before and all those impending Cokes, the long line of satisfaction underpinning a life.”
Overzealous rants aside, SAG HARBOR offers a convincing picture of what it was like growing up black in the eighties. Benj’s opinions on television, music, and clothes are a funky time-capsule of pop culture of the era. At first, Benji can only compare his life of affluence to the poor African-American families portrayed on shows like Good Times and Baby, I’m Back, noting “Me and Reggie and Elena tuned in, making room on the couch to verify that we didn’t exist.” Finally, The Cosby Show: “Who are these people? We said: People we know.”
There is little chance of SAG HARBOR joining the cannon of great coming-of-age literature in the vein of CATCHER IN THE RYE. Though Benji encounters some racism and bigotry in his life, SAG HARBOR is not about confronting these issues. Nor does it need to be: it is enough that Whitehead has given African-American youth a genuine, likeable voice in the character of Benji. This is really how teenaged boys think, act, and speak–and it isn’t always pretty or politically correct. There are inevitable moments of violence as Benji and his friends struggle with their identities as young black men, but none of them fall so far as to be unredeemable.
Overall, SAG HARBOR is a perfect light summer read with just enough depth to engage. It succeeds in reminding us of teenaged summers when anything seemed possible. You were sure you could change your life simply by wearing a new style of clothes, and you still had plenty of time to get everything right.