Described by author Colson Whitehead as "my autobiographical fourth novel," Sag Harbor reads more like a loving trip down memory lane. This sweetly, sometimes extravagantly written memoir spins out as lazily as a summer beach day, waiting to be enjoyed.
In the mid 1980s, 15-year-old Benji Cooper vacations with his family in the Long Island beach colony established by affluent African-Americans whose status depends on how long they stay "out": "The magic answer was Through Labor Day or The Whole Summer. Anything less was to signal misfortune . . . Out for a week, a month, and you were allowing yourself to be cheated by life. Ask, How long are you out for? and a cloud wiped the sun. The question trailed a whiff of autumn. All answers contemplated the end, the death of summer at its very beginning."
Dr. Cooper and his lawyer wife leave Benji and Reggie, 14, to hold the fort while they go back to work in the city. Until recently, the boys functioned as a pair. Then: "Hormones sent me up and airborne, tall and skinny, a knock-kneed little reed, while Reggie, always chubby in the cheeks and arms, bulged out into something round and pinchable."
Trying to forge separate identities, they fight over everything. On weekends, Dad drinks too much and there are bitter fights. Friends know he's abusive, but nobody does anything about it.
There are dozens of threads a novelist would pull tight, but Whitehead seems distracted by detailed memories: how Sag Harbor looks, how Benji makes waffle cones, a portrait of the house where the family was happy once. Faithful to the past, he is so intent on getting everything in that the work never transcends the raw material.
Sag Harbor is what it is: a loving reminiscence. It hits the rhythm of any or every teenager's summer — pleasant, sometimes agonizing, memorable in a dozen dumb ways and gone forever when Labor Day signals a return to everyday life.
Novelist Kit Reed is a frequent reviewer.