SAG HARBOR by Colson Whitehead

Sag Harbor, by Colson Whitehead, got a lot of press when it came out in 2009. It ended up on a lot of “best of” lists that year, and I’ve been interested in it ever since. I finished it today – listened to it mostly on audio but also read the paper version too. I have very conflicting feelings about the book.

Sag Sag Harbor is narrated by Benji, a fifteen year-old boy spending the summer at Sag Harbor, an African-American community on Long Island, at his parents’ beach house. Benji and Reggie, his younger brother, were inseparable as kids, but have grown apart, and their parents only come out to the beach house on weekends, leaving the boys alone from Sunday to Thursday. Sag Harbor is a memoir of that 80s summer of Benji’s fifteen year, and his friendships, his feelings about himself and his family, and his transition into adulthood. I always love a good coming-of-age story, which is why I was drawn to Sag Harbor. But like I said above, I had mixed feelings about it.

Whitehead is a beautiful writer. Breathtaking at times. His use of metaphor and description are masterful. Here’s a passage I loved:

It is the nettlesome quality of elementary-school pictures to reveal the true nature of our childhoods. Nothing is how we remember it, and all the necessary alterations we’ve made in order to survive with semi-functioning psyches are exposed. Best to leave them alone.

There are so many phrases and sentences I could highlight in this post – I can’t understate how good of a craftsman Whitehead is.

But.

It took me so long to get through Sag Harbor because there is simply no plot. No narrative tension. While the book loosely tracks Benji’s summer, there are pages after pages of description and detail that don’t really go anywhere. The book is like an Impressionist painting – you get a textured glimpse of Benji’s life and the history of Sag Harbor, but at any moment your eye could really be anywhere on the canvas with no discernable direction. This meandering, almost indulgent pace made reading the book a chore. And the audio version was even worse – I found my mind wandering many times while I listened, with the narrative fading into background noise. Without a structure, something driving me forward, I was simply pulled along by the momentum of the pages turning, instead of tension or suspense or plot.

I considered giving up on the book many times, but I stuck it out. And I was richly rewarded by a final chapter that was so poignant that I was almost moved to tears. (Like I said, I am deeply ambivalent about this book.) During Benji’s fifteenth summer, he comes to see his parents for who they are – an alcoholic and a submissive – and grows apart from his brother and absentee sister. Whitehead’s older, wiser narrator  – looking back on his younger, awkward self – deeply conveys that combination of sadness and liberation that comes from the distancing from one’s roots. Check out this passage, about an end-of-summer Labor Day picnic that Benji is attending for likely the last time:

We were all there. It was where we mingled with who we had been and who we would be.  Sharing space with our echoes out in the sun. The shy kid we used to be and were growing away from, the confident or hard-luck men we would become in our impending seasons, the elderly survivors we’d grow into if we were lucky, with gray stubble and green sun visors.  The generations replacing and replenishing each other. Every summer this shifting-over took place in small degrees as you moved closer to the person who was waiting for you to catch up and some younger version of yourself elbowed you out of the way.

Wow. The chore of the first 250 pages were almost worth the last 30 pages.

So those are my jumbled thoughts about Sag Harbor. If you decide to read it, go into it with your eyes open.

Yo! FTC! Audiobook was from the library and paper version was bought at a used book sale.

9 Comments

  • Dave George
    February 28, 2011 - 10:14 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, I started this one last year, but didn’t get far. Bored me. Life is too short to finish boring books. Your FTC disclosure made me chuckle, though.

  • February 28, 2011 - 10:49 pm | Permalink

    I felt the same way about The Intuitionist, which I think he wrote before Sag Harbor, but it never paid off for me in the end like this one did for you.
    I saw him at the LA Times Festival of Books and he was really interesting to listen to. After that panel, I vowed I would give him another shot. I’m not sure Sag Harbor is the book I want to do it with though.

  • March 1, 2011 - 3:21 pm | Permalink

    A lot of people have loved this book, but the ending didn’t save the rest of it for me. I thought it was just okay.

  • sheila
    March 1, 2011 - 9:42 pm | Permalink

    gayle. I also was very excited about this book and bought it on audible shortly after it came out. unlike you, I was not able to get through it. a few hours into listening to it, there was STILL no plot and I realized that I couldn’t listen to a book without a plot. For the record, I also was disappointed with the narrator, as much I can remember, he had a strong and unappealing accent.
    i am listening to the hunger games trilogy right now and love it… makes me want to fold more laundry!

  • March 3, 2011 - 1:26 pm | Permalink

    Sheila, totally agree about the narrator. Didn’t like his voice at all.

  • March 4, 2011 - 4:54 pm | Permalink

    I’ve had this book in my sights for quite a while. But I haven’t rushed to read it because I read some other reviews that talked about lack of a plot. How disappointing. I’m intrigued by how much you loved the author’s writing and, of course, by the last chapter! I’ll have to think about what to do….I’m sure I’ll pick this book up at some point.
    Thanks for your honest review!
    ~ Amy

  • Elisabeth
    March 4, 2011 - 7:45 pm | Permalink

    I liked it. I thought it was a different perspective on a familiar story. It wasn’t the best book I ever read but I am glad I read it.

  • March 6, 2011 - 7:58 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t read this one and I’m not sure I will. The passages that you shared are beautifully written, but good writing doesn’t always make a good book. Thanks for providing a very honest review.

  • March 11, 2011 - 6:29 pm | Permalink

    I tried to read this one and just couldn’t stick it out.The descriptions were so great and there was lot that felt familiar and evoked memories, but the meandering made it a bit painful for me to read. Maybe at another point I will try another of his books.

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