Review: Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

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Synopsis:

From the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, a gloriously entertaining novel of heists, shakedowns, and rip-offs set in Harlem in the 1960s.

“Ray Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked…” To his customers and neighbors on 125th street, Carney is an upstanding salesman of reasonably priced furniture, making a decent life for himself and his family. He and his wife Elizabeth are expecting their second child, and if her parents on Striver’s Row don’t approve of him or their cramped apartment across from the subway tracks, it’s still home.

Few people know he descends from a line of uptown hoods and crooks, and that his façade of normalcy has more than a few cracks in it. Cracks that are getting bigger all the time.

Cash is tight, especially with all those installment-plan sofas, so if his cousin Freddie occasionally drops off the odd ring or necklace, Ray doesn’t ask where it comes from. He knows a discreet jeweler downtown who doesn’t ask questions, either.

Then Freddie falls in with a crew who plan to rob the Hotel Theresa—the “Waldorf of Harlem”—and volunteers Ray’s services as the fence. The heist doesn’t go as planned; they rarely do. Now Ray has a new clientele, one made up of shady cops, vicious local gangsters, two-bit pornographers, and other assorted Harlem lowlifes.

Thus begins the internal tussle between Ray the striver and Ray the crook. As Ray navigates this double life, he begins to see who actually pulls the strings in Harlem. Can Ray avoid getting killed, save his cousin, and grab his share of the big score, all while maintaining his reputation as the go-to source for all your quality home furniture needs?

Harlem Shuffle’s ingenious story plays out in a beautifully recreated New York City of the early 1960s. It’s a family saga masquerading as a crime novel, a hilarious morality play, a social novel about race and power, and ultimately a love letter to Harlem.

But mostly, it’s a joy to read, another dazzling novel from the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning Colson Whitehead. 

Review:

Originally appeared at Mystery and Suspense

Colson Whitehead never writes the same book twice. He jumps genres and styles with every new release. From the post-apocalyptic Zone One to the magical realism of Underground Railroad to historical fiction of The Nickel Boys to a nonfiction book where he enters the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas with $10,000 (The Noble Hustle). There is no predicting what he will write next. The only constant is his work. Everything he does, Colson Whitehead does well. 

Whitehead’s latest book, Harlem Shuffle, brings him into the realm of crime fiction. This is structured like a triptych, three sections, each section almost the same length, each section two to three years apart, but each section tied to the one before. The main character, Ray Carney, runs a furniture store on 125th Street in Harlem. He has a family that is growing, an apartment that is too small, and people who always sell him used TVs and jewelry and other property that might not have belonged to them very long before entering the store. This gives Carney a reputation as someone who will move stolen goods, even though he pretends to be on the straight and narrow. In the first section, Carney’s cousin is part of a heist and comes to him to help them move some of the jewels they steal. This job does not happen without hiccups to their plans,  and before he knows it, Carney is much more involved than he ever wanted to be. 

The second and third sections are not related to the first section, but they continue the life of Carney and his business, which becomes more and more lucrative but shady with the passing years. Carney becomes well known as someone who moves stolen merchandise. This means he gets more business, can expand his furniture store, get rid of all of the used furniture and only sell new, while paying off the police and buying a new apartment for his expanding family. He becomes a successful businessman, but in the second and third sections, there is proof that he is only one step away from crime and the criminal element. 

Many of the most famous triptychs in art have a religious theme. In Harlem Shuffle, Whitehead writes about Harlem in a way that almost feels religious, like he has chosen holy ground for the setting of his novel. He writes about the way the neighborhood  changes in the years between the three sections, but even with the changes, reverence still exists. Whitehead shows us that the spirit of Harlem will always be the same, with some honest people doing honest work, but many people doing whatever they can to get by. 

In each section, not only does he revisit different buildings, streets, and businesses and how they have changed, but he also does the same with neighborhood characters. We are updated with many different stages in people’s lives. The strongest example of this is the character Pepper. Pepper is someone who Carney calls whenever he has some work that needs done that might be slightly against the law. Pepper is loyal, reliable, and always willing to help Carney, usually paid in pieces of new furniture.  He feels like more of a staple to the neighborhood than a side character, someone that is Harlem, someone that knows everything about the neighborhood. Pepper feels like the evangelist, always telling Carney the News, whether Good or Bad. Harlem Shuffle does not have any religious overtones, but it does feel like the Harlem in Harlem Shuffle, with all of it’s faults, deserves our respect and reverence. 

Harlem Shuffle is literary pulp fiction. There is not a great amount of mystery, but the tension is high, the characters are all crooked, and even though Carney is a great character, he also brokers stolen merchandise, pays off cops and gang leaders, and keeps it all  from his family. Colson Whitehead still writes in his literary but very readable style. Since the book is broken into three sections, it is very easy to get swept into the story and read the entire section in one sitting. Colson Whitehead is a true American Master, and his novels deserve all of the praise they receive. Harlem Shuffle is just another achievement in an already award-winning career. But if you don’t like this book, try his next. It will be completely different. 

I received this as an ARC from the publisher and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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