It might not seem that I have anything in common with the protagonist of Sag Harbor, a 15 year old black kid from NYC who is spending his summer out on the Hamptons, but this book literally made me feel like I was reading a story about my teenage summer. Why the similarity? Because this book is set in 1985 and Benji, the protagonist, is a teenager who loves New Wave music, bad 80′s sitcoms, and uses all the queer catch phrases that were heard around my school that same year when I happened to be 15 years old.
Sag Harbor is Colson Whitehead’s fourth book (a previous book, John Henry Days, was a Pulitzer and NBCC finalist) and is autobiographical. The story relives the joys of teenage summers, especially one spent in a family beach house in a town where all your friends come back year after year. Sag Harbor is apparently a (or I should say the only) beach town in the Hamptons whose summer population is upper-middle class black families. Benji and his family own their summer home and have been vacationing in Sag Harbor his entire life.
The story begins right after Memorial Day when Benji and all his summer friends regroup after spending the school year apart. Benji attends an exclusive, mostly white NYC prep school. It is up to his more urban, hip summer friends to school him in the latest rap music and handshakes. Benji spends the summer working at the local ice-cream store, thinking about girls incessantly, hanging with his home-boys, sneaking beers on the beach, and blasting music on his boom-box. One of the funnier scenes in the book is when Lisa Lisa comes to town and Benji and his friends try to get into the local club to see them play. Music is featured prominently throughout the book and Colson Whitehead even put together an exclusive playlist of nine essential tracks found here which is truly a blast from the past.
Sag Harbor is the perfect, summer vacation read; a hilarious, hip coming-of-age story which made me realize that the time period in which you grew up creates as much of a bond as your race, financial, or social status. The pop-culture of the mid 80′s defined my teenage years and those shared memories brought a big smile to my face.