Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
One thing we can be sure to expect from Colson Whitehead is the unexpected. The double Pulitzer Prize winner shot to fame with the alternate history (and FanLit favourite) The Underground Railroad. He debuted with speculative fiction, later wrote a zombie novel, and his work now takes another twist: a heist novel, in the form of his latest release, Harlem Shuffle (2021).
The book follows Ray Carney, a furniture salesman in 1950s – 1960s Harlem. His wife, Elizabeth, is expecting their second child, so when Ray’s cousin Freddie — ever the liability — comes to him with the proposition to rob the Hotel Theresa, it’s easy to understand why Ray is reluctant to get involved.
The son of crook, Ray’s been forced to raise himself and has tried to prise himself free of his criminal roots: he now owns a used furniture store on Harlem’s 125th Street. But business is slow and Ray has a growing family to provide for. What’s more, Freddie has already given Ray’s name to the criminals planning the heist he’s trying to avoid, and it’s not long before they come knocking.
When the heist goes wrong, Ray finds himself enmeshed in a shady underbelly of the New York crime scene. He is drawn further and further into the crooked world he’s trying to escape from, and comes face-to-face with mobsters, bent cops, hustlers and everyone in between. Ray will face trials that will not only test his character, but his resourcefulness, too.
The story is divided into three parts: 1959, 1961 and 1964, in which Ray finds himself amidst the Harlem riots. It reads like a pulpy crime novel, with a pace and riotous tone to match. Harlem Shuffle is comical — almost farcical — in the depiction of some of its characters. This caper is a far cry from the more serious tones of The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, but remains just as absorbing and enjoyable.
The writing is, of course, superb. We have already seen that Whitehead is adept at shape-shifting through genres, different structures and time periods, but his prose remains as elegant and captivating as ever. Breakneck sentences and hilarious descriptions (the character of Pepper, in particular, is a winner) all culminate in a ride that is entertaining not only for its plot, but also the sheer enjoyment of the writing.
The pure escapism of the setting is another triumph for Whitehead. Readers will recognise many of the places — such as the Apollo Theatre — but will also be immersed in a New York of times gone by. It is impossible not to be drawn into the gritty underbelly of the criminal underground, and the weaving storylines add to the complexity of the city.
Two Pulitzer prizes in, Whitehead has already established himself as a master storyteller and Harlem Shuffle is just another string to his bow. There is always much speculation about the next great American novelist; it looks like we might have found him.
Harlem Shuffle is not Colson Whitehead’s best novel (that, I would say, is the brilliant The Underground Railroad) but it is perhaps, even almost certainly, his most enjoyable. While his earlier novels present appalling, horrifying environments and characters trapped in brutal circumstances, Harlem Shuffle offers up a warm-hearted, semi-comic story set in a lovingly recreated 1960’s Harlem and centered upon a can’t-help-but-root-for-him furniture salesman-slash-fence (but don’t call him crooked). This being Whitehead, serious themes do raise their heads, but mostly this is just a fun novel.
That loveable pseudo-criminal is Ray Carney who, when the story opens in 1959, is expecting his second child with his wife Elizabeth and contemplating the many ways his furniture/appliance store’s numbers keep “not adding up.” He is thus slightly tempted when his shiftier cousin Freddie comes to him with a heist plan needing a fence, but he decides to pass. When he protests to Freddie that he doesn’t do that sort of stuff, his cousin notes how Ray took “that TV last week, I didn’t hear no complaints … And those other things, not just TVs. You never asked where they came from.” Ray dodges again, saying it wasn’t “his business,” but as Freddie presses him, internally Ray thinks:
Put it like that, an outside observer might get the idea that Carney trafficked quite frequently in stolen goods, but that’s not how he saw it. There was a natural flow of goods in and out and through people’s lives … a churn of property, and Ray Carney facilitated that churn. As a middleman. Legit … [though] It was true that his cousin did bring a necklace by from time to time. Or a watch or two … a few rings … Now that he added up all those occasions they numbered more than he thought, but that was not the point.
Like I said, loveable pseudo-criminal. Unfortunately for Ray, Freddie doesn’t accept his rejection (though he doesn’t tell Ray this), and after the heist at the famed Hotel Theresa goes off profitably, Ray ends up ensnared in potentially fatal underworld comprised of men like Miami Joe (into armed robbery and feels “an erotic rush on jobs”), Chink Montague (rose up from simple “muscle” and known “for his facility with a straight razor), Chet the Vet, Yea Big (gotta love that name), and war veteran and current muscle Pepper (given a choice of jail or enlistment after “the fifth time [he] beat a man unconscious”).
The rest of Harlem Shuffle has two more sections; the first jumps ahead to 1961 and the closing act takes place in 1964. Over that time we see Ray struggle with his image of himself, with how to extricate himself from the criminal elements he’s now involved with even as he debates whether he actually wants to, and struggle as well with his place in Harlem society, this last one involving a corrupt banker and The Dumas Club, an elite group of Harlem power-brokers who look down on Ray for his business but also for his darker skin (as do his in-laws, who mourn their daughter’s marriage to “the rug-peddler,” as they call him).
Ray Carney is one of Whitehead’s greatest characters — vibrant, charming, often funny, at times more insightful about his community than himself (though that changes). Freddie and Pepper are also stand-out characters. Harlem as well comes fully to life: its bustling and hustling streets, its eclectic mix of class, its gloried past (at the Hotel Theresa, “all the famous Negro athletes and movie stars slept there … its thirteen floors contained more possibility and majesty than their parents and grandparents could’ve dreamed of”) and future gentrification.
The writing, as one expects by now from Whitehead, is top-notch on a sentence and paragraph level. The dialogue, meanwhile, is often a sheer joy. I can easily see this turned into a film and the screenplay simply lifting much of the dialogue as is.
As fun as this novel is, though, this being Whitehead, serious subjects are also regularly addressed, even if they arrive more as background than as the novel’s focus, as in The Underground Railroad or Nickel Boys. While criminality lies at the center of the story, a blurring takes place between the “obvious” lawbreaking of people like Freddie and Chink, and yes, Ray, and the behavior of the more “upstanding” citizens. His father-in-law, for instance, one of black Harlem’s premier accountants” who regularly “bragged about his collection of loopholes and dodges, the fat-envelope bribes pass over in the drawing room of the Dumas Club.” Or Wilfred Duke, the banker called “Napoleon,” a big “muckety-muck,” who thrives off his kickbacks, pay-to-play schemes, and other such “sweeteners.” As Ray thinks, “Crooked world, straight world, same rules.”
And overlying all of this is the grander theft of hundreds of years of oppression, slavery, bigotry in its many incarnations. Black businesspeople forced to find alternate funding because banks won’t loan to them. Free black men and women staking out a life in the new city having their land stolen from them and their “village razed” in order to build Central Park (Ray’s in-laws were descended from Seneca Village residents). Black people marking a holiday (Juneteenth) despite the fact that as Ray says, “Finding out you were free six months after the fact didn’t seem like something to celebrate.” The Klan burning down a black-owned grocery store and the white sheriff “suggesting” they might “think twice about reopening.” And, toward the end, a comparison between the limited damage done by the Harlem Riots, where “only a fraction of the community had up bricks and bats and kerosene” and the destruction on a massive scale of a huge chunk of the city to pave the way for the World Trade Center:
The neighborhood was gone, razed … demolished and erased … The buildings of the old city loomed over this broken spot, this wound in itself … The [riot] devastation has been nothing compared to what lay before him now, but if you bottled the rage and hope and fury of all the people of Harlem and made it into a bomb, the results would look something like this.
While I’ve given Whitehead’s last two novels rave reviews, I always recommend them with some healthy caveats. They are tough novels — wrenching, excruciating, brutal and graphic. But while Harlem Shuffle does raise serious social criticism, I can recommend it eagerly and happily with no such concerns. I’m also, I confess, hoping that Whitehead, who rarely writes the same kind of book, returns to this world and cast of characters and shows us how Ray is doing in the late 60s and early 70s.