Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
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.