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Sag Harbor    by Colson Whitehead order for
Sag Harbor
by Colson Whitehead
Order:  USA  Can
Doubleday, 2009 (2009)
Hardcover, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Colson Whitehead writes his autobiographical fourth novel, Sag Harbor, in lyrical prose. It's set in the 1980s in the Hamptons, where a small community of African American professionals share their summers, and where their children grow up together.

Benji Cooper, one of the only black students at his elite Manhattan prep school, anticipates his Sag Harbor beach house summers, where he and his younger brother Reggie look after themselves through the week, to be joined by their parents (a doctor and a lawyer) on week-ends. After arrival he retreats into an 'early-summer dream of reinvention, when you set your eyes on September and that refurbished self you were going to tool around in'. He observes everything around him, 'gathering data, more and more facts, because if I had enough information I might know how to be. Listening and watching, taking notes for something that might one day be a diagram for an invention, a working self with moving parts.'

We share the summer with Benji (who wants to be called Ben), including: his explanation of why it's too late to ask about Famous Black People he's never heard of; his first contacts with girls and first kiss; his friend 'Bobby's transformation into that weird creature, the prep-schooled militant'; his underpaid summer job at Jonni Waffle, he and his co-workers continually cramming ice cream down their gullets; his reaction to Coca-Cola's changing the formula and his addiction to Old Coke; a BB-gun war; the ways in which his family was not a Cosby family as his 'mother disappeared, word by word'; and how Dungeons & Dragons' character classification system applies to people in general.

Though Benji Cooper's coming of age is tinted by the African American experience (which not all readers will share), the vulnerabilities of his teen years are universal, evoking a been-there-felt-that nostalgic response from the rest of us. Read this book on the beach or in a hammock by a lake and recall the angst - and constant search for change - of adolescence.

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