"Harlem Shuffle"| Reviewed by Bill Schwab
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead returns with a book containing three novella-length stories set in Harlem during 1959, 1964 and 1966. He uses these points in time to illustrate the gradual changes in Harlem, in New York City, and in the protagonist himself.
“Harlem Shuffle” is an ingenious, entertaining, smart work of fiction about Ray Carney who is building an “unlikely kingdom” by selling used furniture and sometimes stolen items. The entrepreneur needs funds to maintain his store location on Harlem’s prominent 125th Street.
Carney is about 30-years-old when we meet him. He is happily married to Elizabeth, and together they enjoy their young child and are anticipating a second. Remarkably, Carney grew up to be a fairly responsible person given his own unstable background. His mother died when he was young, and his father was a petty criminal who frequently abandoned Carney.
One fortunate thing his father inadvertently did was to leave him a stash of money. After his dad was shot to death by police, Ray found $30,000 hidden in his dad’s old truck. This is the money Carney used to set up his store.
The shadowy difference between what is legal and what is illegal is at the center of “Harlem Shuffle”. Carney encounters a fork in the road many times: he must decide to take his family members’ path of criminality or try to become an upstanding member of Harlem's Black business elite.
Each of the novel’s three plot lines revolves around a crime of violence and its accompanying moral ambiguity for Ray. As the story opens, Carney is “only slightly bent when it [comes] to being crooked.” But he soon accommodates his cousin Freddie and hides items from Freddie’s heists at the furniture store.
Then, when Freddie robs the opulent Hotel Theresa, a host of underworld figures enter Carney’s life. They include the mobster Chink Montigue, “known for his facility with a straight razor;” World War II veteran Pepper; and the homicidal, purple-suited Miami Joe. These and other characters force Carney to choose just how crooked he wants to be.
Race is a constant powerful factor in Carney’s life. “He was 13 during the riots of ‘43. A white cop shot a Negro soldier. For two nights Harlem was aboil,” writes Whitehead. When the book concludes 20 years later, Harlem is on fire again after another white officer shoots and kills a high school freshman suspected of reaching for a knife.
In between these two events Whitehead deftly depicts the systemic racism to which Black people in the 50s and 60s were subjected. For example, Carney has to deceive his peers in order to join the Dumas Club, the most elite social organization for Black men in Harlem, because his skin is too dark—he does not pass” the brown paper bag test.” He also dreams of living in an apartment on Riverside Drive but knows institutional racism, e.g. red-lining, is designed to keep Blacks out.
Whitehead adroitly describes Carney’s crimes and describes how little they have to do with morality. As soon as Carney opens his showroom, he has to bribe cops and gangsters alike for protection. When his father's criminal friends demand use of the furniture store for more nefarious purposes, he quickly gives in to save his life.
It is noteworthy that Whitehead, who was born in 1969 and raised in an affluent family in Manhattan, can so deftly enable the reader to emotionally identify with the mid-20th century culture of Harlem.
“Harlem Shuffle” is a superb story. Whitehead follows the tradition of Black writers who use crime fiction to demonstrate the hypocrisy of the U.S. justice system. He skillfully exposes the fact that America itself was born of the theft of Black people and their freedom, a theft that continues to be in the process of being repaired.
About the Author: Colson Whitehead is the author of 10 books of fiction and nonfiction. He is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, for “The Nickel Boys” and “The Underground Railroad.” Doubleday is the publisher of this 318-page crime novel.