Harlem Shuffle

Colson Whitehead

Harlem Shuffle
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Harlem Shuffle

Colson Whitehead

‘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 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 fa ade of normalcy has more than a few cracks in it. Cracks that are getting bigger and bigger all the time.

See, cash is tight, especially with all those instalment plan sofas, so if his cousin Freddie occasionally drops off the odd ring or necklace at the furniture store, Ray doesn’t see the need to ask where it comes from. He knows a discreet jeweller downtown who also doesn’t ask questions.

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, after all. Now Ray has to cater to a new clientele, one made up of shady cops on the take, vicious minions of the local crime lord, and numerous other Harlem lowlifes.

Thus begins the internal tussle between Ray the striver and Ray the crook. As Ray navigates this double life, he starts to see the truth about 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 is driven by an ingeniously intricate plot that plays out in a beautifully recreated Harlem 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.

Review

Colson Whitehead’s new novel, Harlem Shuffle, centres on Ray Carney, a furniture store owner who is doing a bad job of flying straight. His father was an infamous crook, and despite Ray’s best efforts to jettison the family legacy, he is also ‘smart enough to know you make more money being crooked’. Ray has a young family, and aspirations to get ahead – to one day get a place in Harlem’s best district, Striver’s Row. He doesn’t have to look hard to find trouble; his wayward cousin, Freddie, has a knack for bringing it to his door. It isn’t long before Ray goes from selling ‘gently used appliances’ to being a fence for one of Harlem’s biggest gangsters.

Set over five years, the narrative is divided into three episodes that take place in a kinetic New York City during the Kennedy presidency. Ray isn’t the only one on the take – beneath that veneer of the city’s prosperity is a dark web of corruption and opportunism. While Ray’s crime capers provide the narrative architecture, Whitehead’s depiction of the Harlem neighbourhood, and its people, is the true jewel of the novel: ‘that rustling keening thing of people and concrete.’

Whitehead’s last books, The Nickel Boys and The Underground Railroad, shined a spotlight on some of the United States’ darkest episodes. While this might not be Harlem Shuffle’s direct focus, these themes of race and power are there, confronting Ray daily. In one scene, Ray is turned away from a Union Square furniture store when he goes to check out the new season line in couches and dining sets from Bella Fontaine. The dividing line between Harlem and lower Manhattan is stark. In the final episode, the Harlem riots of 1964 serve as the backdrop to the narrative, and Whitehead’s characters debate whether a riot will better their lot and promote any real change. Harlem Shuffle will satisfy crime fiction readers and literary fiction readers alike.


Joe Rubbo is the operations manager for Readings.

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