Summer Reading from Benji’s Sag Harbor

By on July 21, 2019

Sag Harbor, a novel by Colson Whitehead

Doubleday, 2009

Ever find a book that captured you so thoroughly you never wanted it to end.  A book that you’d find yourself reading shorter and shorter passages as you got to the inevitable conclusion? That’s what Sag Harbor did for me. And once I was done, after praising the book to all my friends,  I found myself reluctant to pass it along.

Why?  That seemed like some kind of betrayal on my part, to just send it away as if it were nothing more than some weekend fling.

Sag Harbor is the fourth novel by the prolific and Pulitzer prize-winning author of such luminaries as The Intuitionist, Zone One, and The Underground Railroad.  Each work of his seems to mine some deep interest of his and Sag Harbor brings us adolescence with all its splendor and wretched regrets.

Whitehead is a member of a well-established community of educated black professionals, his parents being a doctor and a lawyer. As original, third generation owners of a summer house in Sag Harbor, Whitehead finds himself particularly suited to report his family’s life, and therefore to let that stand for an underreported clan.

In this autobiographical look at the 15th summer of the fictional Benji, who with his younger brother, Reggie lives in the house his grandparents built with their own hands three generations before, all kinds of mischief comes along.

Whitehead’s talents extend to screamingly funny scenes he renders about such topics as the Sag BeeBee Wars which he and his brother participated in – in deep undercover so that their parents might never find out that they had pooled their allowances to buy a beebee gun which was hidden in the deepest recesses of their bedroom.

This became difficult when Ben (as he preferred to be called) got hit in the eye with a beebee.  The brothers didn’t quite know what would be worse, going to the hospital without telling their parents,  or facing the wrath of their father if he ever found out they were messing around with guns – as Dad would say – that’s Whitey crap.

But since the parents only come out on the weekends,  they were able to cook up a believable cover story – Ben ran into a branch or so the story went – and the beebee remained and continues to remain buried deep in the flesh between Mr. Whitehead’s eyes.

One of the lasting memories I have of this book are the recitals of their summer jobs at Sag.  Benji worked in an ice cream shop and prided himself on being able to predict what flavor a customer would order just by the way they walked into the store. His brother Reggie worked at a hamburger joint and came home reeking of old grease after every shift.

While the mother is portrayed as beautiful and loving, the father comes across as an angry and spiteful man whose temper is such that both boys spend a lot of time just staying out of his way. While he assures the boys he is toughening them up to be able to face the world, it comes across as garden variety child abuse.

But in the authentic sense of their world, they never blow the old man’s cover and just do their best to steer clear of him.

The writing is close, intimate, and dazzling.  Would I ever have imagined that I could be hooked on a book told from the point of view of a fifteen year old boy who grew up in Manhattan, wore Brooks Brothers clothes and formally referred to all his parents’ friends and Mr. and Mrs. So and So. I was that fifteen year old boy before it was all over. I can hear the sound of his voice with every page.

My answer to all of this is that I have ordered three more Whitehead works and I’ll be diving in the moment they get to my house.  God, how I love Amazon and its trove of used books. Colson Whitehead is my summer read du jour.  Delicious, entertaining and revealing.  I’m watching the mailbox. And I’ll be back atcha once they arrive.

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About Linda Eckhardt

Linda West Eckhardt, is an award winning journalist, food writer, and nutritionist. Her more than 20 cookbooks have garnered prizes including the James Beard prize for the best cookbook for a text she wrote with her daughter, Katherine West DeFoyd, entitled Entertaining 101, Doubleday. Their follow-up book, Stylish One Dish Dinners, Doubleday, was also nominated for a James Beard prize. Their next book, The High Protein Cookbook, Clarkson Potter, remains a best seller after 12 years. That book was designed to accompany low carb diet plans. Her ground-breaking book, Bread in Half The Time, Broadway Books, was named the Best Cookbook in America by the prestigious IACP, The Julia Child award. Her award winning radio work with Jennifer English, for a national show on the Food and Wine radio network, was nominated for a James Beard Prize for a show called, “I Know What You Ate Last Summer.”