Synopses & Reviews
From the award-winning author of John Henry Days
and The Intuitionist
: a tender, hilarious, and supremely original novel about coming-of-age in the 80s.
Benji Cooper is one of the few black students at an elite prep school in Manhattan. 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.
The summer of '85 won't be without its usual trials and tribulations, of course. There will be complicated new handshakes to fumble through and state-of-the-art profanity to master. Benji 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, and by his secret Lite FM addiction. But maybe, just maybe, this summer might be one for the ages.
“Pure shimmering brilliance. Colson Whiteheads affecting new novel joyously lights up a place, a time, a family, and one unforgettable young man. It is also one of the funniest books Ive ever read, a book loaded with the kind of humor that can only soar off a heartbreaking sadness.” Gary Shteyngart, author of Absurdistan and The Russian Debutantes Handbook
“Warm and funny, carefully observed, and beautifully written. . . . Whitehead seems to be having the time of his life.” The Boston Globe
“Sag Harbor is a kind of black ‘Brighton Beach memoirs’. . . . The novel’s eight chapters are, in effect, masterful short stories [that] riff on the essential quests of teenage boys: BB guns, nude beaches, beer and, above all, the elusive secret to fitting in.” The Washington Post
“Delicious.” The New York Times Book Review
"Whitehead has tapped the most classic summer-novel activity of all: nostalgia. . . . The pleasure is in the way Whitehead recalls it, in loving and lingering detail.” Time
“Surges and sings. . . . Stokes our emotions and intellect at once.” Dallas Morning News
“Weaves a spell that is by turns enchanting, mood-shifting, and side-splitting.” Elle
"By acknowledging that adolescence’s indignities are universal, and that the search for self is endless, Sag Harbor brings this truth home.” Vanity Fair
“All of Whitehead's previous books were various degrees of funny, and Sag Harbor is funnier than all three combined.” The Village Voice
“[A] wise, affectionate novel.” The Washington Post
“Ebullient, supremely confident.” The San Diego Union-Tribune
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 — beautifully explores racial and class identity, illustrating the complex rhythms of the adult world.
About the Author
Colson Whitehead is the author of the novels The Intuitionist, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award; John Henry Days, which won the Young Lions Fiction Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and Apex Hides the Hurt, a New York Times Notable Book and winner of the PEN Oakland Award. He has also written a book of essays about his home town, The Colossus of New York. A recipient of a Whiting Writers Award and a MacArthur Fellowship, he lives in Brooklyn.
Reading Group Guide
1. How does each of Benji’s comrades (Reggie, NP, Randy, Bobby, Marcus, Clive) contribute to the group? What challenges do they face as friends?
2. Explain the differences between Benji’s age group and that of his sister. During these years, why is the disparity between high school and college so acute?
3. Benji comments that “the rock” on the beach near his beach house serves as a racial barrier. White people won’t walk much further past it. What similar examples can you think of that exist today or in your own community? How have racial barriers changed in the last twenty years? How are they still the same?
4. The emergence of hip-hop is a strong influence in the lives of Benji and his friends. In what ways does music affect their generation? In what ways has music affected your own life?
5. Benji grapples with his identity throughout the novel. At one point he states: “According to the world we were the definition of a paradox: black boys with beach houses. A paradox to the outside, but it never occurred to us that there was anything strange about it” (Pg. 71).
How is this community a paradox? How is Benji’s identity shaped by the two worlds he inhabits, both during the school year, and then during the summer season?
6. Benji often refers to the handshake, song, and/or dance he will surely conquer by the “end” of the summer. To what degree is he constantly trying to reinvent himself?
7. What do you think are the characteristics of a typical 1980s adolescent? How does Benji fit the stereotype? How is he different?
8. Benji clearly realizes toward the end of the summer that what he loves, is perhaps not the girls he pines after, but his beach home and “what he put into it.” He reflects back on a tender moment with his family and the fond memories of being a child. What is it about our childhoods that evoke such special memories within us? Is there a place from your own past that touched your life as Sag Harbor touched Benji?
9. Throughout the novel there looms a hint of darkness behind the relationship between Benji’s father and his family. His father seems to have a violent strain. How does this affect Benji and his family? What is the role of the father in a young man’s coming-of-age?
10. From Catcher in the Rye to Stand by Me, the coming-of-age novel is a perennial in American literature. What do you think is so appealing and universal about this genre?
(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group's discussion of Sag Harbor, a tender, hilarious, and supremely original novel about coming-of-age in the '80s.