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Colson Whitehead’s Warmhearted Novel of a 1960s Crime Caper in Harlem

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By Karan Mahajan

  • Sept. 14, 2021

HARLEM SHUFFLE By Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead is on a tear. In the last five years, he has published three novels, two of which have won the Pulitzer Prize. Taken together, these books showcase Whitehead’s mastery over structure, history and atmosphere, not to mention a zest, shown throughout his career, for savvily mixing the palettes of literary and genre fiction. The runaway slave tale “The Underground Railroad” takes inspiration in equal part from “Gulliver’s Travels” and (somewhat to its detriment) children’s books like “Harry Potter.” “The Nickel Boys,” Whitehead’s best book in my estimation, is a boys’ adventure story repurposed for a grim reform facility, a “jail within a jail” of American life, in which the meanings of servitude and segregation are multiplied.

By comparison, the crime caper “Harlem Shuffle” is a much calmer, shiftier and warmer book; a book that luxuriates in the seedy spaces of late night, “when the straight world slept and the bent got to work”; and that treats the realm of gangsters with names like Pepper, Chink Montague and Miami Joe as an extended, if dangerous, family. Yet this book too is driven by a serious historical purpose, showing us the micro-changes in the landscape of Harlem and the prospects of Black Americans in the North in the 1960s.

Whitehead’s sweet, sweaty, authoritative, densely peopled portrait of a Harlem in near perpetual summer is the most successful part of the book. Had I not known Whitehead was a talented shape-shifter, I — as an outsider to Harlem — would have believed he had only ever written about this setting. Effortlessly name-dropping local characters and establishments (real and fictional), Whitehead presents a Harlem of “men in undershirts drinking beer” on their stoops while “outrunning some brand of Southern devil”; of professionals jockeying for power in elite clubs; and of sad Chinese restaurants where “the cookies were stale and the fortunes discouraging.” Equally impressive is Whitehead’s grasp of diverse trades like furniture selling, jewelry retail, electronics repair — and of course petty thievery. Except for a couple of potted histories, Whitehead’s research in “Harlem Shuffle” feels richly integrated with the story; he knows the people of Harlem in the 1960s; and the people are just that: real people.

In the past, Whitehead has shown a deep interest in systems but not always in human psychology (a charge that has also been leveled at earlier systems novelists like Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon). This book is a step forward. Ray Carney, the protagonist, is, in some ways, Whitehead’s most fully developed character, for the simple reason that he is a master not just of “fencing” (serving as a middleman for thieves) but also of self-deception. A striving furniture retailer with a sideline in crookery — for a small fee, he will haul your stolen TV or radio or brooch to a respectable retailer downtown — Carney clings to the false assurance that he’s not really a shyster. In some of the best parts of the book, written from a close third-person perspective, Carney protests that he just “facilitated that churn” of stolen objects; and that even if “he got a thrill out of transforming these ill-gotten goods into legit merchandise, a zap-charge in his blood like he’d plugged into a socket, he was in control of it and not the other way around.” As the book progresses, though, Carney loses control. He is made an accessory to a major heist against his will, and his life — and self-image — alters.

The heist, which takes up the first section of the book, is brilliantly executed, both by its participants and by its omniscient author. In describing the (fictional) stickup of the (real) Hotel Theresa — down-on-its-luck “headquarters of the Negro world” — Whitehead’s prose becomes taut, electric and gleeful. “Robbing the Hotel Theresa,” Whitehead writes, was like “slipping Jackie Robinson a Mickey the night before the World Series.” The novel treats the hotel itself as a microcosm of Harlem, and each civilian caught in the heist is tagged with a supple biography. Had Whitehead ended the book after this fierce and funny section, it would stand as one of the few perfect novellas in American literature.

Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on your taste — Whitehead keeps going; and the rest of the book yields mixed results.

“Harlem Shuffle” is structured as a three-part mini-series set in 1959, 1961 and 1964. As it progresses, anti-police-shooting rebellions roil Harlem; old slick gangsters give way to a new breed of “hotheaded, feral, ever-trifling” hoods; and “the Junkie Shake, that new dance,” becomes “all the rage.” The flavor of each episode varies ever so slightly, but they are linked by Carney and his ne’er-do-well cousin Freddie, who is always pulling Carney into chancy schemes against his will.

If the first episode is a portrait of a reluctant crook, by the second episode, Carney is a contented family man, moving up in the world, expanding his showroom, more at ease with being a fence. He is also smarting with anger over being cheated out of $500 by a sleazy Harlem banker who fails to deliver on the promise of membership to an elite club of Harlem movers and shakers. For the next 100 pages, in an often wobbly plot — “I have to take care of one thing before I can do another thing, and I have to do something else before I can do that,” Carney explains, a bit too aptly — Carney concocts an elaborate revenge against the banker.

Like the heist, though, this revenge goes perfectly, with few consequences for Carney — and the book loses energy as a result. Instead of forcing Carney’s self-image into crisis, Whitehead gives us less-than-original observations about how everyone’s a crook. In fact, after the riveting danger of the first section, Whitehead protects Carney from real harm for much of the novel, and many scenes — peopled with a sitcom-grade angelic wife, evil in-laws, and criminals marvelously free of misogyny or sexual violence — have the dreamy feel of a comic book. The darkness — of Carney’s lonely childhood, of drug abuse, of violent crime — is pushed to the corners, bursting out only occasionally, as in one character’s superbly depressing and sinister flashback about building a supply line in Burma during World War II. And while I valued Whitehead’s attempt to write a serene character on the verge of success — extremely hard to pull off in fiction — I longed for the taut prose of “The Nickel Boys,” where every sentence, spat out laconically, advances the grim story.

Happily, Whitehead rights the ship by the third episode, which focuses on another crime to which Carney is an unwilling accomplice, with potentially deadly repercussions for the people he loves. And the crime story, which had become inert, suddenly revs to life, reminding us that Whitehead, beneath all the shambling and high jinks, remains an American master.

Karan Mahajan is the author of the novels “Family Planning” and the National Book Award finalist “The Association of Small Bombs.” He teaches at Brown University.

HARLEM SHUFFLE By Colson Whitehead 318 pp. Doubleday. $28.95.

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Harlem Shuffle

By colson whitehead, reviewed by patrick lohier.

Colson Whitehead’s new novel,  Harlem Shuffle , is the epic and captivating story of Ray Carney—furniture salesman, family man, entrepreneur on the rise and a vivid, walking, breathing, living exemplar of that classic archetype, the striver. Harlem Shuffle is a bravura performance, an immersive, laugh-out-loud, riveting adventure whose narrative energy is boosted by its memorable hero and a highly relevant backdrop of social injustice.

Set from 1959 to 1964, the novel comprises three episodes charting the precarious rise of Carney, a self-made man who habitually dips and sometimes dives into New York’s criminal underworld. In his “straight” life, Carney is the owner and proprietor of Carney’s Furniture, which serves the neighborhood’s Black clientele by offering new and “gently used” furniture and appliances along with a forgiving policy on lines of credit. Many of Carney’s clients struggle financially and fear shopping in white-owned stores where they might be denied service or otherwise humiliated. Carney is also a tender husband to his supportive pregnant wife Elizabeth and father to their young daughter Mary. Elizabeth works for a travel agency that specializes in planning Green Book-style itineraries that help Black travelers navigate the treacherous highways and byways of the segregated 1950s and 60s. Then there’s his beloved cousin Freddie, a lovable crook who’s as close to a brother as anyone in Carney’s life, and whose “common sense” tends “to fall out of a hole in his pocket—he never carried it long.”

From the novel’s opening sentence (“His cousin Freddie brought him on the heist one hot night in early June”), Freddie draws Carney into shady dealings—moving stolen goods through a loose network of fences and pawnbrokers. That network includes Carney’s erstwhile mentor, Harvey Moskowitz, his main contact in Manhattan’s Diamond District. Carney is wary of the dangers, but his secret side hustle helps him pay the bills. His worries are understandable; that world destroyed his parents and made for a harrowing childhood. For Carney is the son of an infamous, long-deceased local hoodlum named Big Mike Carney, from whom he’s inherited a healthy sense of cunning. The turbulence of Carney’s childhood fuels his desire for the security and stability of the “straight” world.

When a job goes sideways, Carney gets taken for a ride by the formidable Pepper, a cold, calculating enforcer who happens to have been one of Big Mike Carney’s old cronies. Pepper is as enigmatic and charismatic a crook as any in modern fiction. His tentative, slow-burning partnership with Carney is one of the novel’s most engaging touches. Key to Whitehead’s accomplishment is his virtuosic handling of the distinct lingo and arcane codes of Carney’s various worlds. Pepper, especially, is portrayed with hard-boiled economy and delicious wit:

No one answered Pepper’s knock the first two times. “Yes?” “It’s Pepper. And Carney.” “Don’t know any Pepper. No salt, neither. You get on.” It wasn’t Miami Joe’s voice. This guy sounded like he’d read a book once. Pepper ran his finger along the door frame, testing, then kicked it in.

Fittingly, Carney’s family live along Harlem’s Striver’s Row. The Carney family’s street “was one of the most beautiful stretches in Harlem, but it was a little island—all it took was a stroll around the corner to remind its residents that they were among, not above.” Among what, you might ask? Among the “urban blight” and creeping disintegration that Carney sees hopping through Harlem “from place to place like bedbugs.”

The killing of a Black teenager named James Powell by a white police officer named Thomas Gilligan sets off riots in the summer of 1964. The backdrop of a real historical event amps the novel up from the compulsively readable to the profoundly topical. Among the defter touches is Whitehead’s empathetic portrayal of disparate reactions within the Black community to protests and riots. Carney sympathizes with the rage and feels its source in his soul, but he’s also pained by the destruction of local businesses. The blight, the cramped Striver’s Row apartment, the protests and unrest on the streets and other pressures stir Carney’s anxieties and aspirations. On solitary nighttime walks he stalks real estate along Riverside Drive and dreams of moving his growing family to roomier, more luxurious digs. Among Harlem Shuffle ’s many engaging pleasures is watching Carney bootstrap himself toward the urban American dream.

Carney has his own ideas about that ethical grey zone between the law-abiding and the criminal. As Whitehead writes, “Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked, in practice and ambition.” Because Carney grew up on the edges of Harlem’s turbulent underworld, he understands better than most the brutality and greed undergirding both the crooked and the straight worlds. In fact, he’s highly sensitized to all kinds of dualities: Black and white, rich and poor, uptown and downtown, straight and crooked. That hard-won knowledge helps him keep things in perspective. When considering his own neglected and hardscrabble childhood, he sets grievance aside with a survivor’s and striver’s assurance: “It had been hard. Others had it worse.”

Whitehead conveys the violence on the other side of civility especially well in the novel’s third act, when Carney goes toe-to-toe with the patriarch of a white political dynasty. While closing in on his dreams, a bit of overconfidence and an ironclad sense of loyalty put Carney and everyone he knows at risk. Pepper, sensing trouble, warns him, “Nothing solid in the city but the bedrock.” Despite Carney’s efforts to keep the crooked things from breaking him and the people he loves, the heat gets red hot, and a painful and dramatic reckoning crashes over him.

Even while using the law-abiding and criminal worlds as counterfoils, Whitehead shows how much they overlap in their shared desire for opportunity, security, safety, and a fair shake. His love for his characters and for the Harlem of Harlem Shuffle is clear. In this brilliant novel Whitehead has woven a rich tapestry with resonant characters and relationships, a playful, memorable lyricism, and a hero for the ages.

Published on December 7, 2021

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What Is Crime in a Country Built on It?

How Colson Whitehead subverts genre conventions in his new book

Black-and-white illustration of man lighting cigarette with hat down in foreground, with "Carney's" storefront in lights and long-shadowed silhouettes of men walking in distance behind

W hen I was 7 years old , I went with my friends to a nearby corner store after school. I remember the outing vividly—even the brands of chocolate-chip cookies I was torn between buying. Just when I had settled on Famous Amos, I felt a hard push, then heard the words “Get out! Get out!” We were stealing, the shop owner said. “Don’t come back!” Not long after, I recall being inside a stuffy car with my grandmother. We were on our way to one of the tax-free outlet malls in Delaware, but not to shop. When we arrived, my cousin was sitting on the edge of the pavement by the parking lot, waiting for us. “I swear she didn’t steal anything,” she said, crying, her head in her hands. My aunt was being held by the mall police for shoplifting.

People are sometimes asked, “When did you become aware of your race?” This was not that moment for me, though around this time, I certainly realized that my race marked me as a thief. I know I should be offended, but I have always found robbery glamorous: In a kind of defiance, I have preferred to associate theft with high-end getaway cars and wads of cash stuffed into suede jewelry pouches, soft to the touch. I imagined myself, and still do, in league with the slinky cat burglar Selina Kyle (also known as Catwoman), Audrey Hepburn in How to Steal a Million , and En Vogue on the Set It Off soundtrack. I am far from alone. Everywhere you turn, the world of thievery is inhabited by sleek and sexy heroines and dapper playboys who can pick locks and crack safes. Even Helen Mirren wants to be in a Fast and Furious movie.

Colson Whitehead, too, seems to have fallen for the seductive allure of the thief in his newest novel, Harlem Shuffle . When he sat down to work on it, he had just finished The Underground Railroad (2016), and hoped that this next book, the story of a reluctant fence in early-1960s Harlem, would offer a reprieve. “ The Underground Railroad was so heavy that I thought the crime novel might be a good choice for my sanity,” he told The New York Times in 2019 . All that fun, however, would have to wait. Exasperated by the endless cycle of police shootings of Black teenagers, Whitehead decided to pursue another idea he had been working on, a darker tale that became The Nickel Boys (2019), a fictional account of the real-life Dozier School for Boys , a reform school in Florida whose inmates were subjected to brutal beatings, sexual abuse, and murder. Renaming it the Nickel Academy in his novel, Whitehead follows two teenage boys who hastily hatch an escape attempt.

Read: Colson Whitehead on zombies, Zone One , and his love of the VCR

Whitehead’s Harlem caper may seem a dramatic departure from its two sobering predecessors. Yet in their own way, The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys were also crime novels, devoted—much like Harlem Shuffle —to the odyssey of the fugitive. Whitehead’s latest features a young furniture dealer named Ray Carney who is caught up in a jewel heist that forces him to wrestle with the impossible terms confronting him as a Black man trying to get ahead in life. To escape his circumstances, will he fare best simply by following the straight and narrow? Is there such a thing when Black shopkeepers like him cannot secure bank loans? Or should he rely on the world of criminals to get what he wants, what he needs? After all, their ends and means feel no less amoral than what he sees being practiced by businessmen and the moneyed elite. “Crooked world, straight world, same rules,” Ray thinks. “Everybody had a hand out for the envelope.”

Set against a backdrop of the 1964 Harlem race riots, looting, gentrification, and corrupt Black capitalists, Harlem Shuffle is a story about property and the vexed relationship that African Americans have with it. Indeed, what is theft for a people who were themselves once property (“stolen bodies working stolen land,” as Whitehead wrote in The Underground Railroad  ), and for whom their very freedom was the ultimate heist?

We first meet Ray Carney, the proud purveyor of Carney’s Furniture on 125th Street, in 1959 during the civil-rights movement, but the progress he is most interested in is his own. With his name spelled out in large letters on Harlem’s main thoroughfare, he feels confident that he has finally overcome his ignominious family origins. His father, Mike Carney, was a local hustler and petty thief who was gunned down by police while stealing cough syrup from a pharmacy. Early in the novel, Ray recalls being teased in school and, following his father’s advice, hitting one of his bullies in the face with a pipe. He vowed at that moment, he remembers, to chart a new course: “The way he saw it, living taught you that you didn’t have to live the way you’d been taught to live. You came from one place but more important was where you decided to go.” His store, “scrabbled together by his wits and industry,” marks a new chapter for the Carney name, an honest and legitimate one (though he has just launched a “gently used” section full of secondhand items, some of dubious provenance). So when his cousin, Freddie, asks him if he can fence some stolen jewelry, Ray balks. “I sell furniture,” he insists, to which Freddie, who recently brought in a “gently used” TV set, responds, “Nigger, please.”

Ray refuses to see himself as a crook. He does not traffic stolen goods so much as simply recognize “a natural flow of goods in and out and through people’s lives, from here to there, a churn of property.” What, then, to make of the discovery that Ray got the money for the furniture store by finding $30,000 in cash in the spare tire of his late father’s truck? The murky distinction between legality and illegality sits at the core of Harlem Shuffle . Ray encounters two paths: He can follow Freddie into further criminality or try to become an upstanding member of Harlem’s Black business elite.

Yet the distinction between the two slowly starts to blur as Ray realizes that he may need both the scoundrels with guns and the scoundrels with business cards to get what he wants, namely an apartment on Riverside Drive. In time, his sense of right and wrong—and by extension his sense of himself as the son of Mike Carney—is upended. Is Leland, his wife’s father and “one of black Harlem’s premier accountants,” any less of a crook than he or Freddie is? Leland, after all, is always bragging “about his collection of loopholes and dodges,” about how he can “get you off the hook.”

Ray’s desire to be taken seriously as a legitimate businessman is not just about shaking off the reputation of his father; he also wants to stick his self-made success in the face of his wife’s family. Owners of a townhouse on Strivers’ Row in Harlem and descendants of Seneca Village, a community of Black landowners in Manhattan that was razed to make Central Park , Leland and Alma Jones regard their daughter’s choice of husband with a disdain that borders on shame, referring to him as “some sort of rug peddler.” When Freddie presents Ray with the opportunity to fence stolen articles from safe-deposit boxes at the Hotel Theresa, the “Waldorf of Harlem” and host to the Black bourgeoisie, it feels less like robbery and more like a revenge fantasy.

When he gets an opportunity to join the Dumas Club, an elite association of Black businessmen that Leland belongs to, that fantasy only intensifies. A member of the club board, a well-known banker named Wilfred Duke, presses for $500—what Ray considers “a sweetener”—to make the deal happen. When it doesn’t, a furious Ray concocts an elaborate plot involving a drug dealer, a pimp, and a crooked cop to bring down Duke, who sees nothing wrong with the transaction: It was an investment that fell through, in the eyes of a man busy “at the bank snatching back loans, foreclosing on hope.”

In the moral universe of Harlem Shuffle , the honest in honest work is literal. The novel privileges the perspectives of its avowed criminals—thieves, mobsters, and prostitutes, all candid about the nature of their profession—over those who have convinced themselves that their dubious machinations are ethical, which is to say bankers, real-estate developers, and the suits who work to find them loopholes. When looting breaks out during the riots, Leland deplores the “shiftless element” that has infiltrated the more respectable student protest movement. Whitehead juxtaposes Ray’s view: When he sees signs protesting eminent domain where extended construction of the World Trade Center is set to begin, he thinks back to the looting. That “devastation had been nothing compared to what lay before him,” he thinks. “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.” Can theft really be a crime, the novel asks us, in a country built on it?

Ray’s insights are part of what makes him bewildering as a character. Though himself a professional fence—by the novel’s end he’s stopped trying to think otherwise—he never gives up on the prosperity gospel or the promises of Black capitalism. When the looting dies down, he is relieved; his primary concern isn’t the fate of Black teenagers like James Powell (whose shooting sparked the riots), but his business and those of his fellow Black store owners. Indeed, none of the criminals whom the novel holds up as having profound moral clarity about the hypocrisy of the ruling classes shows any interest in Black protest or even Black history (which feels especially significant, given Whitehead’s recent dedication to the historical novel). “How am I supposed to get a motherfucking sandwich with all that going on?” Freddie fumes when the riots close down restaurants. The Hotel Theresa heist occurs on Juneteenth. The organizer of the robbery, a gangster named Miami Joe, doesn’t know it is Juneteenth, but welcomes the coincidence, hoping someone will think it was a racially motivated hit and get thrown off the scent.

Ray displays a pessimism not unlike that of Jack Turner in The Nickel Boys . Turner is the foil to Elwood Curtis, an idealistic young Black man who throws himself into the civil-rights movement and writes pieces about social justice for the Chicago Defender . Despite the brutal unfairness Elwood suffers, he has faith in the innate goodness of people and is convinced that if he can just get a letter to the state inspectors, they will shut down the school. Jack is incredulous. “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there,” Jack says. “You got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” Jack sees Black survival as something that has to be seized when those in power are looking the other way; in short, it must be stolen.

Jack and Ray both recognize justice and injustice as a false binary. Jack was sent to a reform school that was itself run by criminals, and the people who steal most brazenly from Ray do not see themselves as crooks, but as legitimate businessmen. Jack’s experience turns him into a realist, not an activist. Frustratingly, Ray likewise remains a pragmatist, never fully disavowing the charms of the Black bourgeoisie—a choice that is of course his right, just as it is Whitehead’s to write a novel devoid of prescriptions. In fact, his refusal might even be considered radical at a moment when readers are turning to Black writers for answers rather than for art.

Whitehead follows in a long tradition of Black writers who employ crime fiction subversively, using the genre against itself to expose the hypocrisies of the justice system, the false moral dictates set by capitalism , and the very fact that America itself was born of a theft that we are all complicit in. Indeed, what good is a standard whodunit when the answer is “everyone”? Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series , which follows a conflicted Black private eye as he reluctantly works for the police, acknowledges the richness of African American life in Los Angeles, often neglected in classic L.A. noir stories. Pauline Hopkins, whose Hagar’s Daughter (1901) is considered one of the first works of African American detective fiction, employs the genre’s devices to make a thriller out of Civil War–era Black life, using passing to satisfy the trope of mistaken identity. The satirist Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972) has been called by some an “anti–detective novel” in the sense that it eschews the classic figure of the white detective as empiricist (Holmes, Poirot, etc.) in favor of PaPa LaBas, an “astrodetective” who conjures clues with the help of “jewelry, Black astrology charts, herbs, potions, candles, talismans.”

Harlem Shuffle strikes me as doing a bit of each of these things, and more. What we call a crime and whom we label a criminal are clearly issues very much on Whitehead’s mind—and his added twist is to leave out the figure of the detective altogether. The cops are all paid off; the characters fear payback, not jail time. Some readers may find the absence of a real police presence in the novel a missed opportunity for social commentary, but others—I’m among them—can appreciate that Whitehead’s omission allows the people in his book to savor the delight that transgression brings. Understanding all too well how little the world has to offer his characters—Black men and women who scrounge so they can buy a piece of furniture from Ray’s store on a payment plan—he cannot bring himself to deprive them of a small part in a caper. Few of his crooks get off entirely free (the gangsters and the businessmen they represent eventually come knocking). Still, many are given a brief moment to revel in the high of the heist, which is close enough.

This article appears in the October 2021 print edition with the headline “Colson Whitehead Subverts the Crime Novel.”

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With ‘Harlem Shuffle,’ Colson Whitehead proves once again that he’s a master of reinvention

the harlem shuffle book review

As the only living writer who’s won two Pulitzer Prizes for fiction — and a National Book Award and a MacArthur “genius” grant — Colson Whitehead risks growing so encrusted with literary prestige that he’s not allowed to have any fun.

But clearly that’s not holding him down.

Yes, Whitehead wrote one of the greatest historical novels about slavery (“ The Underground Railroad ”), and his last novel was a grisly story — based on real events — about a deadly juvenile detention center in Florida (“ The Nickel Boys ”). But longtime fans know that he’s also the author of a fantastic zombie novel (“ Zone One ”), a witty satire about marketing (“ Apex Hides the Hurt ”) and a delightful fictionalized memoir (“ Sag Harbor ”).

So perhaps it was only a matter of time before he drove down 125th Street in his native New York City to deliver a wry crime novel. If the ghost of Chester Himes hovers over these pages — think “Colson Comes to Harlem” — there’s nothing derivative about Whitehead’s storytelling. As usual, when he moves into a new genre, he keeps the bones but does his own decorating.

“ Harlem Shuffle ” takes place in the late 1950s and early ’60s when the legendary African American neighborhood is teetering between commercial vibrancy and criminal dynasties. That tension is contained in the life of the novel’s affable hero, Ray Carney. His dad was a renowned thug around these parts — till he was finally, inevitably, shot down by the police.

Review: “The Underground Railroad,” by Colson Whitehead

Carney has always felt determined to follow a different path than his dad. He’s the first person in his family to go to college. “Living taught you that you didn’t have to live the way you’d been taught to live,” he thinks. “You came from one place but more important was where you decided to go.” Now he’s the proud owner of Carney’s Furniture, a purveyor of fine new and gently used pieces for the home. That his business was founded on $30,000 cash discovered in the spare-tire well of his father’s truck is not a moral complication that troubles him much.

“Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked,” Colson writes. “An outside observer might get the idea that Carney trafficked quite frequently in stolen goods, but that’s not how he saw it.” Although some of the TVs, radios and small appliances in his showroom have questionable provenance, Carney believes he’s performing a community service. “He was a wall between the criminal world and the straight world, necessary, bearing the load.”

“Harlem Shuffle” is largely the story of piling up more and more weight against that precarious wall that Carney imagines separates him from the city’s grifters and thieves. “Compared to your typical, flashy uptown crook, Carney looked like, well, a furniture salesman,” and he puts a lot of faith in that appearance. We get glimpses of his happy home life and his successful wife, who works for a Black travel agency. And we see him working hard to enhance his business with furniture lines normally reserved for White stores.

Review: Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys”

Trouble is, Carney can’t say no to his cousin Freddie, who has not chosen the path of legal, upstanding entrepreneurship. As adolescents, he and Freddie developed their own truant version of Laurel and Hardy. Again and again, “Freddie sweet-talks him into an ill-advised scheme and the mismatched duo tries to outrun the consequences. Here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into .”

That was all fun and games when they were kids stealing candy or daring each other to jump into the Hudson River. But as the novel opens, Freddie wants Carney to fence jewelry he hopes to steal from the Hotel Theresa, “headquarters of the Negro world.” Suddenly, Carney and his cousin aren’t playing out a vaudeville comedy skit anymore.

Except they kind of are.

There’s nothing zany about “Harlem Shuffle,” but Whitehead has cast this novel with toughs like Chet the Vet, who flashes gold canines, and Miami Joe, who wears a high-waisted purple suit. Although they’re not harmless figures, they’re definitely comic. One particularly accommodating gangster lets delinquent customers pick which appendage they’d like broken. “No one had heard of such a marketing gimmick before,” Whitehead notes, “this a la carte maiming.” And though people die in “Harlem Shuffle,” they tend to do it cozily offstage, far from the horrific mayhem of “The Underground Railroad” or the implicit sadism of “The Nickel Boys.” Indeed, for all its allusions to murder and drugs, this is Harlem’s gangster culture glazed with more humor than blood.

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In a sense, we’re kept within the fertile biosphere of Carney’s cheery optimism, at least for a while. But “Harlem Shuffle” is laced with intimations that classism and racism are conspiring to corrupt the city. Carney’s own in-laws look down on him as a mere “rug-peddler,” and there’s a clear hierarchy of color among the Black residents. Even as the neighborhood struggles against systemic abuses, the center of “Harlem Shuffle” focuses on a vendetta between Carney and a crooked Black banker. The scheme that Carney engineers to wreak his revenge is entertaining, but it’s also a tragic example of how much energy is misdirected on internecine battles that are only furthering the work of a larger racist society. “All over the city there were people like them, a whole mean army of schemers and nocturnal masterminds working their rackets,” Whitehead writes. “Thousands and thousands toiling and plotting in their apartments and SROs and twenty-four-hour greasy spoons, waiting for the day when they will bring their plans into the daylight.”

That incantatory vision of pervasive criminality eventually gives way to the novel’s third and most exciting section, set in 1964, around the real-life riot sparked when a White police officer kills an African American teenager. “Kid got shot? Heat wave like that?” a crooked cop says. “That ain’t a powder keg — it’s the munitions factory.”

Don’t be surprised: What starts as a shuffle ends in a run.

Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts .

Harlem Shuffle

By Colson Whitehead

Doubleday. 336 pp. $28.95

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by Colson Whitehead ‧ RELEASE DATE: Sept. 14, 2021

As one of Whitehead’s characters might say of their creator, When you’re hot, you’re hot.

After winning back-to-back Pulitzer Prizes for his previous two books, Whitehead lets fly with a typically crafty change-up: a crime novel set in mid-20th-century Harlem.

The twin triumphs of The Underground Railroad (2016) and The Nickel Boys (2019) may have led Whitehead’s fans to believe he would lean even harder on social justice themes in his next novel. But by now, it should be clear that this most eclectic of contemporary masters never repeats himself, and his new novel is as audacious, ingenious, and spellbinding as any of his previous period pieces. Its unlikely and appealing protagonist is Ray Carney, who, when the story begins in 1959, is expecting a second child with his wife, Elizabeth, while selling used furniture and appliances on Harlem’s storied, ever bustling 125th Street. Ray’s difficult childhood as a hoodlum’s son forced to all but raise himself makes him an exemplar of the self-made man to everybody but his upper-middle-class in-laws, aghast that their daughter and grandchildren live in a small apartment within earshot of the subway tracks. Try as he might, however, Ray can’t quite wrest free of his criminal roots. To help make ends meet as he struggles to grow his business, Ray takes covert trips downtown to sell lost or stolen jewelry, some of it coming through the dubious means of Ray’s ne’er-do-well cousin, Freddie, who’s been getting Ray into hot messes since they were kids. Freddie’s now involved in a scheme to rob the Hotel Theresa, the fabled “Waldorf of Harlem," and he wants his cousin to fence whatever he and his unsavory, volatile cohorts take in. This caper, which goes wrong in several perilous ways, is only the first in a series of strenuous tests of character and resources Ray endures from the back end of the 1950s to the Harlem riots of 1964. Throughout, readers will be captivated by a Dickensian array of colorful, idiosyncratic characters, from itchy-fingered gangsters to working-class women with a low threshold for male folly. What’s even more impressive is Whitehead’s densely layered, intricately woven rendering of New York City in the Kennedy era, a time filled with both the bright promise of greater economic opportunity and looming despair due to the growing heroin plague. It's a city in which, as one character observes, “everybody’s kicking back or kicking up. Unless you’re on top.”

Pub Date: Sept. 14, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-385-54513-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: June 15, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2021


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by Barbara Kingsolver ‧ RELEASE DATE: Oct. 18, 2022

An angry, powerful book seething with love and outrage for a community too often stereotyped or ignored.

Inspired by David Copperfield , Kingsolver crafts a 21st-century coming-of-age story set in America’s hard-pressed rural South.

It’s not necessary to have read Dickens’ famous novel to appreciate Kingsolver’s absorbing tale, but those who have will savor the tough-minded changes she rings on his Victorian sentimentality while affirming his stinging critique of a heartless society. Our soon-to-be orphaned narrator’s mother is a substance-abusing teenage single mom who checks out via OD on his 11th birthday, and Demon’s cynical, wised-up voice is light-years removed from David Copperfield’s earnest tone. Yet readers also see the yearning for love and wells of compassion hidden beneath his self-protective exterior. Like pretty much everyone else in Lee County, Virginia, hollowed out economically by the coal and tobacco industries, he sees himself as someone with no prospects and little worth. One of Kingsolver’s major themes, hit a little too insistently, is the contempt felt by participants in the modern capitalist economy for those rooted in older ways of life. More nuanced and emotionally engaging is Demon’s fierce attachment to his home ground, a place where he is known and supported, tested to the breaking point as the opiate epidemic engulfs it. Kingsolver’s ferocious indictment of the pharmaceutical industry, angrily stated by a local girl who has become a nurse, is in the best Dickensian tradition, and Demon gives a harrowing account of his descent into addiction with his beloved Dori (as naïve as Dickens’ Dora in her own screwed-up way). Does knowledge offer a way out of this sinkhole? A committed teacher tries to enlighten Demon’s seventh grade class about how the resource-rich countryside was pillaged and abandoned, but Kingsolver doesn’t air-brush his students’ dismissal of this history or the prejudice encountered by this African American outsider and his White wife. She is an art teacher who guides Demon toward self-expression, just as his friend Tommy provokes his dawning understanding of how their world has been shaped by outside forces and what he might be able to do about it.

Pub Date: Oct. 18, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-06-325-1922

Page Count: 560

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 13, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2022


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by Richard Wright ‧ RELEASE DATE: April 20, 2021

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

A falsely accused Black man goes into hiding in this masterful novella by Wright (1908-1960), finally published in full.

Written in 1941 and '42, between Wright’s classics Native Son  and Black Boy , this short novel concerns Fred Daniels, a modest laborer who’s arrested by police officers and bullied into signing a false confession that he killed the residents of a house near where he was working. In a brief unsupervised moment, he escapes through a manhole and goes into hiding in a sewer. A series of allegorical, surrealistic set pieces ensues as Fred explores the nether reaches of a church, a real estate firm, and a jewelry store. Each stop is an opportunity for Wright to explore themes of hope, greed, and exploitation; the real estate firm, Wright notes, “collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor colored folks.” But Fred’s deepening existential crisis and growing distance from society keep the scenes from feeling like potted commentaries. As he wallpapers his underground warren with cash, mocking and invalidating the currency, he registers a surrealistic but engrossing protest against divisive social norms. The novel, rejected by Wright’s publisher, has only appeared as a substantially truncated short story until now, without the opening setup and with a different ending. Wright's take on racial injustice seems to have unsettled his publisher: A note reveals that an editor found reading about Fred’s treatment by the police “unbearable.” That may explain why Wright, in an essay included here, says its focus on race is “rather muted,” emphasizing broader existential themes. Regardless, as an afterword by Wright’s grandson Malcolm attests, the story now serves as an allegory both of Wright (he moved to France, an “exile beyond the reach of Jim Crow and American bigotry”) and American life. Today, it resonates deeply as a story about race and the struggle to envision a different, better world.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59853-676-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Library of America

Review Posted Online: March 16, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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the harlem shuffle book review

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead review – a zinging wiseguy noir thriller

A small-time crook in 1960s Harlem becomes embroiled in a heist as the double Pulitzer prize-winner confounds expectations once more

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“Nothing came close,” Claude McKay observed a century ago, “to the hot, syncopated fascination of Harlem”, with its overcrowded tenements, star-studded theatres, numbers runners, ragtime and jazz. At the start of Harlem Shuffle, Colson Whitehead’s dazzling new thriller, it’s 40 years on from the area’s 1920s renaissance. Gone are the hi-de-ho days of Cab Calloway’s orchestra. Up at Hotel Theresa, the “Waldorf of Harlem”, you’re more likely to find “a pimp and working girl at the bar than Joe Louis or a grande dame of Negro society”. But Harlem is still the black capital of the world, and its optimism and potential are embodied in Ray Carney, whose fortunes change on discovering, in his dead father’s car, a bundle of cash – enough to open a furniture store on 125th Street.

Carney senior was a local hood but his son, Ray, “was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked”. By day, Ray charms customers on the merits of Collins-Hathaway armchairs; by night he oversees a steady trade, shifting stolen goods. He has a business diploma, framed on the wall, but that can only get you so far in a place oiled by corruption. Ray is strictly small-time until his feckless cousin, Freddie, inadvertently involves him in a heist to rob safe deposit boxes at the Hotel Theresa.

In the 1950s, Chester Himes set a high bar for Harlem noir with his series featuring badass black detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. But Whitehead isn’t looking over his shoulder. As in Himes’s novels, the language here is wiseguy crisp, zinging with street vernacular. Ray Carney’s Harlem is equally a messy and ugly world, where a knife-wielding pimp will “unzip” an out-of-favour working girl; where the gangster Miami Joe and Freddie drink until they resemble “rye-soaked cockroaches scurrying from sunlight and propriety”.

A crime novel might seem like a departure for Whitehead, but the double Pulitzer prize winner has always resisted categorisation. That was evident in his creation of an actual underground railroad for his innovative 2016 slave novel of the same name (made into a captivating recent TV series by the Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins), and in his brutal rendering of a 1960s true-life story of abuse and murder at a reform school in The Nickel Boy s (2019). In Harlem Shuffle , Whitehead flexes his literary muscles further, extending the boundaries and expectations of crime writing.

The book is also a social drama interrogating the nature of prejudice and how an environment limits ambition. The nuances of Manhattan’s topography drive much of the action – from Harlem’s gambling dens, like Nightbirds, where the atmosphere “was ever five minutes after a big argument and no one telling you what happened”, to the flophouses of Washington Heights that “don’t deserve a name”, to the “manic boil” of 47th Street’s diamond quarter, to the dreamland of the black upper-middle-classes’ Strivers’ Row .

Ray’s wife, Elizabeth, was brought up on Strivers’ Row. Her parents, Alma and Leland, don’t conceal their disappointment that she “settled” for a husband whose skin is too dark to pass the brown paper bag test for admission to the elite Dumas club where Leland is a member. And in her dealings with her son-in-law, Alma does everything with a “healthy sprinkling of spite”.

Elizabeth stands by her man and by Harlem; her social conscience is exemplified in her work for Black Star Travel. The company amplifies the initiative of Jim Crow-era guide The Green Book in offering routes for safe passage and accommodation for African Americans to traverse the US unmolested. When the downtrodden’s sense of rage erupts with the Harlem riots, the narrator charts how, with “cars overturned like fat beetles” and grocery stores firebombed, the burning and looting “sends a message”, but also threatens businesses such as Ray’s. Notwithstanding the “Negro-owned and operated” sign outside his showroom, he keeps a night vigil cradling a baseball bat.

Harlem Shuffle is built like a classic three-act tragedy. Jeopardy lingers in the shadows throughout for Ray. Can he ever escape a life framed by the dead-end airshafts and “the screech of metal” of the elevated trains? Part of the book’s pleasure is that it keeps you guessing. By the end, I felt, as Ray does of Harlem: “Its effect was unmeasurable until it was gone.”

• Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead is published by Fleet (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at . Delivery charges may apply






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Submitting a book for review, write the editor, you are here:, harlem shuffle.

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For 18 months, the world has found itself under the thumb of a debilitating pandemic that has changed our daily routines and lives in ways we do not understand and reluctantly accept. But there have been some bright spots along the way. The solitude and time at home have allowed for many accomplishments.

By his own admission, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead found the time during lockdown to return to writing HARLEM SHUFFLE, a crime novel set in New York City during the 1950s and ’60s. The long-awaited finished product is now in stores and marks a substantial stylistic change from his previous two novels, THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD and THE NICKEL BOYS.

"HARLEM SHUFFLE is a personal novel. Colson Whitehead is a New Yorker, and his parents and family lived in the Harlem recreated on these pages.... [a] delightful and amazing book..."

Reading those books was a heart-wrenching and difficult experience as they focused on the institutional racism and oppression toward Black Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries. There was no subtlety in the worlds portrayed by Whitehead; the story was presented with blaring trumpets and blazing guns. HARLEM SHUFFLE is far more discreet as the New York racism of the post-Korean War era is illustrated more through subtle comments, gestures and attitudes that seemingly recognize that the United States and the rest of the world are changing, but not without some pushback from those in authority.

Here, readers are introduced to Ray Carney, a young and aggressive entrepreneur seeking to establish himself as a successful furniture store operator in Harlem. He has a wife and daughter, and another child is on the way. To marry Elizabeth, he was forced to overcome opposition from her family because he was not deemed to be of sufficient social stature to be her husband. Bluntly put, he was too black for her.

Ray tries to overcome the early obstacles that life placed in his younger days. Although abandoned by his criminal father as a child, Ray does have some mementos from him, including a truck that he drove and a few valuable contacts with criminal associates of his. Except for occasional forays, he has avoided the criminal world and is only “slightly bent” when it comes to illegal activity. While he runs an honest business in Harlem, Ray sometimes accepts merchandise of questionable status and even undertakes studying the art of evaluating and fencing stolen jewelry. He is philosophical of his status. As one associate observes, “If being a crook were a crime, we’d all be in jail.”

When Ray strays too close to the boundary of more egregious criminal behavior, his life changes. He becomes the victim of the white criminal justice system, and it begins to impact the success of his legitimate business. When his membership in an exclusive Harlem organization is denied for reasons he does not quite understand, he seeks revenge. Ray Carney is a wonderfully sympathetic character. We want him to succeed, and we worry that his life, business and family could be destroyed by white New York society.

HARLEM SHUFFLE is a personal novel. Colson Whitehead is a New Yorker, and his parents and family lived in the Harlem recreated on these pages. As I prepared this review, the New York Times published an interview with the author that sums up his delightful and amazing book perfectly: “I’m describing a Harlem that’s in decline in the ’50s and ’60s. And now it’s gentrified and revitalized. And that’s the city. It’s always being laid low. By 9/11, by COVID, and we bounce back.” Come back quickly, New York. America needs you.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on September 16, 2021

the harlem shuffle book review

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

  • Publication Date: August 9, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction , Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • ISBN-10: 0525567275
  • ISBN-13: 9780525567271

the harlem shuffle book review

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Vivid, noirish vision … Colson Whitehead.

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead audiobook review – New York’s criminal underworld

Actor Dion Graham narrates this noirish tale of a wise-cracking furniture salesman who struggles to stay on the straight and narrow

Colson Whitehead ’s vivid, noirish Harlem Shuffle – whose sequel, Crook Manifesto, arrives in print this month – features Ray Carney, a wise-cracking, hard-working furniture salesman with connections to New York’s criminal underworld.

Carney, whose story is told over three acts, is the son of a long-deceased local hoodlum and is “only slightly bent when it comes to being crooked”. As the proprietor of Carney’s Furniture, he serves the black clientele in his neighbourhood, selling “gently used” items with a generous credit policy. Carney is determined to stay on the straight and narrow and become part of the city’s business elite, but then his cousin, Freddie, ropes him into a hotel heist. Predictably, things don’t go according to plan and Carney finds himself neck-deep in gun-toting mobsters and bent cops, several of whom are old adversaries of his father.

Real-life events weave around Whitehead’s characters: as the Harlem riots rage in 1964, Carney gets off the subway and is exasperated to find the streets full of people waving signs. “[They are] chanting, ‘We want Malcolm X! and ‘Killer cops must go!’ I’m hungry. I don’t want to deal with all that. I’m trying to get a sandwich.”

The voice actor Dion Graham is the narrator: his reading is fast-paced and draws out Carney’s easy charm, optimism and desire for advancement. Despite being a striver who loves his wife and his community, Carney is denied entry to the institutions that would give him the respectability he craves. In trying to rise above the circumstances of his birth, “[his] mistake was to believe he’d become someone else”.

Harlem Shuffle is available via Hachette Audio, 10 hr 35 min

Further listening

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo Taylor Jenkins Reid, Simon & Schuster, 12 hr 10 min Alma Cuervo, Julia Whelan and Robin Miles narrate this tale of a journalist assigned to write the life story of a reclusive Hollywood star.

Straight Outta Crawley: Memoirs of a Distinctly Average Human Being Romesh Ranganathan, Random House Audiobooks, 5 hr 41 min The hardest-working man in comedy recounts his suburban beginnings, his first standup set at a Pontins holiday camp talent show, and subsequent rise to fame.

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Harlem Shuffle

by Colson Whitehead

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

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  • Historical Fiction
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  • New York State
  • 1940s & '50s
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the harlem shuffle book review

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Book Summary

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.


His cousin Freddie brought him on the heist one hot night in early June. Ray Carney was having one of his run-around days—uptown, downtown, zipping across the city. Keeping the machine humming. First up was Radio Row, to unload the final three consoles, two RCAs and a Magnavox, and pick up the TV he left. He'd given up on the radios, hadn't sold one in a year and a half no matter how much he marked them down and begged. Now they took up space in the basement that he needed for the new recliners coming in from Argent next week and whatever he picked up from the dead lady's apartment that afternoon. The radios were top-of-the-line three years ago; now padded blankets hid their slick mahogany cabinets, fastened by leather straps to the truck bed. The pickup bounced in the unholy rut of the West Side Highway. Just that morning there was another article in the Tribune about the city tearing down the elevated highway. Narrow and indifferently cobblestoned, the road ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!

  • Carney is described as being "only slightly bent when it came to being crooked, in practice and ambition" (page 31)—suggesting a more nuanced understanding of seemingly criminal activity. How does his placement on the crooked spectrum change throughout the course of the novel? How does his ...
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Reader reviews, bookbrowse review.

Whitehead is a masterful writer, able to present characters and scenes that draw us in with fast-paced action, while also slowing down to provide enough gratifying and diverting details that allow us to enjoy the historical backdrop where the excitement unfolds. He is cerebral enough to pepper his deceptively simple prose with reflections upon double consciousness, race theory and criticisms of capitalism and privilege. At the same time, while we're entertained, surprised and intellectually stimulated by the novel's outstanding execution, somewhere a beating heart is missing. The novel is so plot-driven and filled with so much, that Whitehead overlooks delving into the rich internal lives... continued

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(Reviewed by Jennifer Hon Khalaf ).

Beyond the Book

Harlem and the end of the civil rights era.

Vintage souvenir postcard featuring image of the Theresa Hotel in Harlem

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'crook manifesto' takes colson whitehead's heist hero in search of jackson 5 tickets.

Jason Heller.

Jason Heller


"It was the Jackson 5 after all who put Ray Carney back in the game following four years on the straight and narrow." So writes Colson Whitehead at the start of Crook Manifesto , the sequel to his 2021 novel Harlem Shuffle and the second installment of his Harlem Trilogy. Anyone who has already read Harlem Shuffle will immediately feel the playful smack of humor in this seemingly innocuous sentence: As established in that first book, Ray is a hustler of stolen goods who threads his way through New York's yesteryear in a sometimes heroic, sometimes tragicomic attempt to figure out life, fatherhood, and identity.

What's changed? Harlem Shuffle takes place in the 1960s; Crook Manifesto is set ten years later. It's 1971, and his daughter May is now a teenager — and his quest to find her Jackson 5 tickets underscores how even his beloved R&B music has passed him by in his encroaching middle age. When Motown's hottest new act is a group of brothers young enough to be his own children, how can he not feel older? A generational shift is afoot, and it's not just happening to Ray. Black culture, socioeconomic hardship, institutional racism, and New York City itself are morphing rapidly. Staying on top of it is like tiptoeing on quicksand. In true Ray fashion, he ill-advisedly turns toward Munson, a less-than-up-and-up cop who agrees to help Ray get those precious concert tickets for May. That is, for a price. Naturally, his old partner-in-infamy, the thug ultra-violent Pepper, jumps onboard with reckless charisma.

It's a desperate, unforced error done for the noblest impulses, which has long been one of Ray's biggest charms and biggest flaws. Naturally, he gets sucked into a web of capers, coincidences and catastrophes that would be funny if they weren't so deadly. Well, actually, they're both. Crook Manifesto is a kind of trilogy within a trilogy: This second book in the Harlem series is a triptych of extended vignettes that occur in 1971, 1973 and 1976. Each leap in time is an evolution and a backslide for Ray; together they triangulate his haphazard yet dogged navigation of Harlem's underbelly — not to mention his own uneasy stasis between the past and the future, between recidivism and redemption.

Whitehead's flair for texture is as sharp as ever. Pop culture defines Ray's existence. The Jackson 5 is just the tip of the, ahem, Iceberg Slim: Blaxploitation cinema, the martial arts craze, and the simultaneous earthy and lavish fashions of the '70s are given cartoonishly mythic dimensions as well as sly political substance. Harlem Shuffle fans also get a welcome treat: Crook Manifesto 's 1973 section is a Pepper-centric romp through the film industry, the Black comedy revolution of that decade (be on the lookout for Richard Pryor Easter eggs), and the paradox of underground stardom.

Whitehead's ever-lengthening list of accolades is as staggering as it is deserved. In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize twice as well as the National Book Award, he's the recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships. Most recently, he was honored with a National Humanities Medal at the White House by President Biden, part of the 2023 class of august creatives that includes Vera Wang and Elton John.

Like so many middle books in a trilogy, Crook Manifesto feels more like a bridge than a fully self-contained work. Its hopscotch chronology gives it a swift, almost breezy ease. The explosive '60s are dead; the momentous '80s are gestating; and the confused '70s are kind of muddling their way along in a haze of post-this and pre-that. America's history bears that pattern out, and in microcosm, so does Ray's. He's a man of his time, but he's no pawn. Except, of course, when Whitehead can draw a good laugh or lesson out it. Even during the book's borderline apocalyptic final third, the corrupt and fiery New York of 1976 gives Pepper, Ray, and his force-of-nature wife Elizabeth a dramatic backdrop against which their relationships are tested and deepened. Through it all, family is Ray's grail, his motivation to be both better and worse. "What else was an ongoing criminal enterprise complicated by periodic violence for," Whitehead writes with the perfect timing of one of his semifictional comedians, "but to make your wife happy?"

What truly makes this series, or any series, work is the way it compels the reader to revisit its characters, to invest in them, to compel you to care enough to see their narratives through. Whitehead knows it, and Crook Manifesto proves it. Ray, May, Elizabeth and Pepper in particular are by turns exasperating and aspirational. Life gets thrown at them, and they throw themselves back in return. These are people you crave to catch up with, and in Whitehead's hands, the vast and intangible forces of society, injustice, morality, survival and love are distilled in them. "I want you back," sang the Jackson 5 so famously. It's how Whitehead makes you feel the instant you close Crook Manifesto . Does that mean it's utterly necessary to go back and read (or re-read) Harlem Shuffle before diving into its sequel? No. But it would be a crime not to.


  1. Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

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  2. Harlem Shuffle: A Novel by Colson Whitehead

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  4. Harlem Shuffle (Book Review)

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  5. Book Review: ‘Harlem Shuffle’

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  6. Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead (signed first edition)

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  1. The Rolling Stones


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    This book is a step forward. Ray Carney, the protagonist, is, in some ways, Whitehead's most fully developed character ... The novel treats the hotel itself as a microcosm of Harlem, and each civilian caught in the heist is tagged with a supple biography. Had Whitehead ended the book after this fierce and funny section, it would stand as one ...

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