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One teen's uncompelling summer of '85

For all those who thought - like me - that the Hamptons was simply the summer playground for the rich and beautiful, Sag Harbor, by Colson Whitehead may come as a surprise.

From the book jacket
From the book jacketRead more

By Colson Whitehead

Doubleday. 288 pp. $24.95

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By Karen E. Quiñones Miller

For all those who thought - like me - that the Hamptons was simply the summer playground for the rich and beautiful,

Sag Harbor

, by Colson Whitehead may come as a surprise.

It seems that upper-middle-class African Americans have owned summer homes there since the 1940s.

And in 1985, 15-year-old Benji summered there for his 15th year. Only, for the first time, he's pretty much on his own since his parents have decided that he and his younger brother are old enough to hold down the vacation home front, while they make the 21/2-hour trek from New York City only on the occasional weekend.

To Benji, this is the chance of a lifetime; a chance to prove how cool he really is.

Forget that his classmates in the predominantly white prep school he attends have labeled him a nerd, due in large part to his penchant for Dungeons & Dragons.

Forget that he still wears braces and has only a few straggly strands of hair on his chin, and that the Afro he sports is misshapen beyond recognition.

Forget that, despite his best efforts, he's never mastered the art of the ever-changing soul-brother handshake, and that's he's never kissed a girl.

Benji is on a mission.

The question that readers are left to ponder after reading this much-awaited novel by the renowned author: Is it mission impossible or never a mission at all?

Whitehead, whose novels include The Intuitionist and John Henry Days - which was on the short list for a Pulitzer Prize - continues to show off his wonderfully literary style in this fictionalized autobiography. But unlike his other works, Sag Harbor suffers from lack of focus.

Early on, Sag Harbor shows promise of being a wonderful coming-of-age story like the classic book Summer of '42, or the movie The Inkwell. But the promise is never fulfilled.

Summer of '42 details a summer in the life of a teenager vacationing with his family on Nantucket Island during World War II. Although the protagonist was white and I'm black; was a male and I'm a female; and was a teenager in the '40s more than a decade before I was born, I quickly found myself enraptured by the story.

The Inkwell tells the story of an awkward African American teenager summering in an all-black section of Martha's Vineyard in the 1970s and pining for a popular and unattainable girl. Again, the protagonist's reality was far from mine, but I was engrossed.

It wasn't until after I read Sag Harbor that I realized why I loved these stories so much - it was because both had intriguing plots that enticed me to read about characters with whom I had nothing in common, and in continuing reading I learned about people and lifestyles very different from my own.

While Sag Harbor is beautifully written, I found it much too easy to put down the book. There was nothing to urge me to continue reading. There was no defined plot, and I found myself desperately searching for one. If the plot was supposed to be his determination to prove his coolness, the only move he seems to have made in that direction was an unsuccessful attempt to get his summer buddies to call him Ben instead of Benji.

The novel both benefits and suffers from Whitehead's frequent use of flashbacks - though sometimes entertaining, they often had nothing to do with the story being told.

I did learn a lot about the history of the African American enclave in Sag Harbor, though, and I was able to laugh - sometimes out loud - at the teenage angst Benji suffers. I also found myself pitying him for his dysfunctional family, with a mentally and physically abusive father and a distant mother.

But my occasional laughter and pity notwithstanding, I had a hard time getting into this novel.

As a coming-of-age tale, Sag Harbor fails because we see no real development on Benji's part. As a slice-of-life story, Sag Harbor fails because there was nothing intriguing enough to make me care about the slice - or want more.

I'm sure it would have been a lot easier if I'd been a male African American teenager in the 1980s growing up in an upper-middle-class family who summered in the Hamptons. But I wasn't. And with no plot to egg me on and enable me to relate rather than just read, I found myself often falling asleep while attempting to get through this almost 300-page novel.