In his novel Sag Harbor, Colson Whitehead re-creates an '80s summer at the beach in rich nostalgic detail

There are action-packed summer books — in which, say, a shark attacks on the Fourth of July or a well-tailored man with a mysterious past throws wild parties — and then there is Sag Harbor (Doubleday; 273 pages), the new autobiographical novel by Colson Whitehead. Not much happens in Sag Harbor. It's 1985, and Benji, a 15-year-old New York City kid, takes off for his family's beach house on Long Island, where for the first time he'll look after himself and his brother while his parents are at work.

It's not a distinctive premise, but Whitehead provides a distinctive heritage: Benji's...

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