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News flash – Colson Whitehead can write! I know we know this, he’s won not one but two Pulitzer Prizes (for The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys). Harlem Shuffle is completely different from those books but just as extraordinary.
Ray Carney is a good man, smart, loyal, in love with his wife, their young daughter and the baby on the way. He’s Big Mike’s son, but he rejected a life of crime like his dad’s and instead pushed himself to make something of himself. Ray went to business school and opened a furniture store in Harlem with his name on it. He’s proud of himself.
Ray’s also “slightly bent when it came to being crooked.” Nothing major, just some electronics and jewelry that would occasionally make its way into his shop. After which he would make his way to his guy to trade the goods for cash. He knows he’s skirting the law but everyone else does it so why not? Hard enough to be a Black man in New York City.
Whitehead’s Carney is a delicate creation. He’s smooth and chill, but not without self-doubt. He’s on the edge, trying not to let the darker side of his world seep into the light.
It was a beautiful night to be out in the city and up to no good.
Harlem Shuffle is almost noir but not quite. It’s a caper novel with some humor but not a comic caper. Whitehead’s created something unique. Just when you think it’s just a good story well-told, he’ll slip something in, a line to make you remember that it wasn’t all fun and games for non-Whites in America in the 60s. But he never smashes you over the head with it, it’s just a quick jab and then back to the story.
And what a story it is. Ray’s doing well with his store, always refining things, making plans for what’s next. But then who strolls through the door? None other than cousin Freddie, Ray’s childhood friend / brother / partner in crime. Ray is the straight man to Freddie’s free-wheeling persona. Ray is the voice of reason to Freddie’s voice of chaos.
Freddie says he’s been tapped by the notorious Miami Joe for a brazen job – hitting a local hotel that caters to Blacks. Ray wants no part of it, not the actual robbery or fencing the jewels after. But trouble finds him anyway and he’s drawn in.
There’s a saying: the more things change the more they stay the same. Throughout Harlem Shuffle there are police shootings of unarmed Black men and riots. Police brutality and kickbacks for protection. You can’t help but think of George Floyd and others who have fallen victim to the same. It’s a sobering and sickening reminder that racism and classism are an American way of life.
One of my favorite characters in the book is Pepper, the aging hoodlum. Gruff, weary, frank, and realistic, Pepper rules. He was a compadre of Big Mike and has something akin to affection for Ray. He meets the family at one point, has dinner with them in their apartment. The scene could have gone all sorts of ways but Pepper’s human side is showcased in a small exchange with one of Ray’s kids. John asks Pepper, what’s your favorite color? And he answers “I like that shiny green that parks get around here in the spring.” I mean, sure he’s a criminal but with an artist’s eye and heart!
Part of moving up in the world is realizing how much shit you used to eat.
There’s a moment in Harlem Shuffle where the novel takes a turn. I absolutely love when that happens; you’re turning the pages, thinking you know what the story is and where it’s headed, and then BAM a shift. In this case it’s Revenge, for Ray has been crossed and he doesn’t like it. He immediately starts making plans to get back at the man and get what’s rightfully his. Oh baby.
There’s another moment between Ray and his mother-in-law. His wife’s parents don’t like him, never have, think their daughter settled. And one day the MIL lets her mask slip, takes her gloves off, and says what’s been unsaid. It’s not pretty but it’s real and a perfect moment in a close-to-perfect book.
Crooks and civilians need to congregate every once in a while to reinforce their life decisions.
I’ve read almost all of Donald E. Westlake’s NYC comic crime caper novels. Whitehead’s writing brings Westlake to mind, especially scenes between Ray and Pepper. But Whitehead is completely original. He has a style all his own: smooth, reserved, warm and wry. As with his other books, it’s not all on the page, scenes and descriptions are written between the lines as well.
Elizabeth, Ray’s wife, has a career of her own. She works in a travel agency that caters to Black people. If you’ve read or seen The Green Book you know that back then they could only stay in certain hotels and had to avoid certain towns while traveling. Agencies like this were a lifesaver – literally and figuratively. Whitehead doesn’t give you much of her, just a line here and there, but I wanted more.
In fact, while Ray tried hard to keep his crooked side from Elizabeth I’m sure she knows something. I wondered about her unwritten story. She defied her parents to marry this good man, Carney, and I wonder if she’s slightly bent as well. In her line of work she’d have opportunities to bend some things…maybe I should write a fan fiction…
I had mixed feelings about the ending of Harlem Shuffle. I was expecting a more dynamic closing scene, maybe a double-cross or a final triumph, but it was subtle. Like Ray Carney. Like Colson Whitehead.
Take a trip back to the 60s, back to Harlem, and get lost in a world of good guys, bad guys and the people living in between.
Jump to my reviews of The Nickel Boys and The Underground Railroad: