Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Julie's Review: Sag Harbor

Summary: The year is 1985. Benji Cooper is one of the only 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, he 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. In this deeply affectionate and fiercely funny coming-of-age novel, Whitehead—using the perpetual mortification of teenage existence and the desperate quest for reinvention—lithely probes the elusive nature of identity, both personal and communal.

Review:Sag Harbor: A Novel is a delightful and heartfelt coming of age story from a unique point of view that we don't normally see in this genre, a young black male or at least I haven't seen much of it. If you've read this blog with any regularity you will know that I'm not a big coming of age or memior type book person but I thought that this book sound interesting. The premise intrigued me, a young black male experiencing his adolescence on the "shore".

I would say that I'm in heavy like with this book. It's a great piece of nostalgia for those of us who experienced our adolescence in the 80s but I'm not sure I loved it. I routed for Benji but at the same time I thought that Benji's voice was confusing at times. Was he writing this in retrospect as an adult or were we supposed to believe that Benji was that intuitive at 15? For most of the book I was say it's the former. It feels that at times the book is written in a journal like fashion. What I mean by this is that it seems as if the author found a journal from that time period in his life and began to write chapters about his experience. It's an interesting way to write but at times it left me scratching my head.

Benji's life is not without problems. Throughout the book it is hinted at that there are problems in his parents marriage and we never get to truly meet his sister, although the absence of her is explained in the later part of the book. There are some disturbing situations that the young boys get themselves into but nothing that I thought was out of the ordinary. I figured it was what happened when kids were left alone and pretty much had to fend for themselves.

Colson Whitehead is a gifted writer; there is no doubt about that but at times he was a bit wordy. I felt myself skipping over paragraphs at a time to move the story along in a speedier fashion. Mr. Whitehead is the featured author this month at Barnes and Nobles First Look club and is happily fielding questions from us readers. One of the question was "Why did you write this book as an autobiographical novel instead of a memoir?" His answer, so he could make the characters do what he thought they should do and so he could take liberties with the truth. Frankly, since I'm not a big memoir fan I found this statement delightful. Reading some of Mr. Whitehead's responses I find him to be quite humorous and witty.

What makes Sag Harbor: A Novel distinguishable in this genre is that it is about affluent black people who create their own community and how it shapes one young man's life.

Final Take: 3.75/5


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