‘Harlem Shuffle’ is Colson Whitehead’s great American dream

REVIEW: In his rollicking and heartrending novel, "Harlem Shuffle," the Pulitzer Prize award-winning author brilliantly weaves crime fiction, family drama, and political history

Harlem Shuffle” by Colson Whitehead

In the embodiment of hustle, Colson Whitehead brilliantly weaves crime fiction, family drama and political history in one rollicking and heartrending novel with Harlem Shuffle.

There’s a daring hotel heist that goes terribly wrong and a murder or two, but at the heart, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s eighth novel is an expansive slice-of-life tale from the perspective of someone with a very complicated existence.

Ray Carney wears several hats: dedicated family man, self-made business owner and inveterate crook — though he doesn’t quite cop to the latter. Even with all his sins, the man is hard to resist, and I fell for him completely. He loves his family, he works hard and hustles hard, and he’s deeply, relatably human — loving, lying, prevaricating, doing whatever it takes to move endlessly forward.

In his latest offering, “Harlem Shuffle,” author Colson Whitehead (above) “brilliantly weaves crime fiction, family drama and political history in one rollicking and heartrending novel,” opines Carole V. Bell. (Photo: Chris Close/colsonwhitehead.com)

For a guy who grew up the hard way, Carney’s accumulated a lot: a wife who’s beautiful and intelligent, a cute kid at home and one on the way, a college degree and a furniture store. It’s a good life Ray’s built, even if it’s precarious.

Ray married above his station, and there’s always the possibility that it could all come crashing down if his in-laws ever got their way or if his wife learned what he really does to supplement the store’s income.

Elizabeth was a girl Carney didn’t dare dream of when they were young. As Whitehead tells it, “Elizabeth had seen straight through him during school, even when he sat next to her or walked her home in the rain, but he was grateful she saw him now.”

The contrast between then and now is a testament to who he was and how far he’s come. There was a distance between them back then. Ray “had not been one of those boys in his grade who’d had a crush on her…. She was out of his league so he never wasted a thought on it.

That’s because Carney’s wife comes from what folks used to call a “good family,” unlike Ray, whose father, Big Mike, was an infamous and unreliable crook, who “had passed down crookedness to Carney,” try as he might to escape it.

Complicating Ray Carney’s secret side hustle as a fence for goods of questionable origin, Ray’s cousin and best friend Freddie still runs the streets, courting trouble and bringing it back to Ray’s door.

Discretion is Carney’s lifeblood, and cousin Freddie has none. Freddie’s been getting Ray in trouble since they were kids, and nothing much has changed over the years. It’s Freddie that brings Carney in on the heist “one hot night in early June.”

Through a series of vignettes spanning five years, we see Ray and Freddie’s journey and get to know Harlem of the late 50s and early 60s. It’s a treat to see glimpses of the streets and the folks that inhabit them. These stories reveal the joy and the grit of the place we think of as a Black mecca and its complicated realities.

The challenge with this structure is that the pace and direction can feel a little desultory, and the trajectory of the novel does get a little fuzzy in the middle, much like one of Carney’s walks through the city in the dead of night. It can be hard to see how one piece fits with another and where it’s all leading. And I wondered how that wandering wasn’t an issue between Carney and Elizabeth.

Despite those issues, an entertaining storytelling style, masterful world-building and a complex cast of characters make this story very hard to put down. The first thing that jumps out is the originality of the narrative voice: vivid and charismatic, with stylized yet precise prose that evokes a bygone golden era.

The story begins, “Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked,” and I immediately wanted more. The seductive storytelling is a treat that makes slipping into this world irresistible.

The complexity, nuance and variation in its absorbing cast is another great distinction — not just Carney, but his family, friends and foes. Carney is so compelling that this book made me think hard about genre conventions and the power of perspective-taking in narrative.

There’s an inevitable pull to take the side of the person whose story we’re following, regardless of whether they’re doing right or wrong. That’s especially true in Harlem Shuffle.

Whitehead tells the story in the third person, but there’s never a doubt whose side we’re on: Carney is our hero. For all his sins, pettiness and the danger his choices bring, I never stopped rooting for him. His colorstruck in-laws, in contrast, as law-abiding and upstanding as they may seem, garner far less sympathy.

Leland and Alma Jones are the kinds of Black folks who would have been at home in the small Southern town from Brit Bennett’s “The Vanishing Half” with elite clubs, paper bag tests, and fretting over the color of their grandkids; the Windsors certainly didn’t invent that.

Then there’s the ever-present pressure of the family lore, stories passed down through generations about their heritage: “Teachers and doctors for generations and an uncle who was the first Negro to attend this Ivy college, a cousin who was first Negro to graduate from that medical school.”

Whitehead draws these racial dynamics with acute and brutal precision. In historical context, the affectations of the Talented Tenth were a dysfunctional reaction to the depredations of white supremacy.

Alma and Leland aren’t villains, and yet I can’t help but see them as such, if even just a little. Their complaints and pretensions grated my nerves, whether their concerns had some basis or not.

Carney is such a convincing character that people who couldn’t respect the beauty and passion in his hustle, no matter what, seem not just corny and unreasonable but unforgivable. Growing up in Harlem, he and his cousin would lie on a roof looking at the stars and dreaming. The two boys were always different.

Carney had ambition and the confidence to follow through: “The boys’ constellation knowledge stalled after the Dippers and the Belt, but you didn’t have to know what something was called to know how it made you feel, and looking at the stars didn’t make Carney feel small or insignificant, the stars made him feel recognized. They had their place, and he had his. We all have our station in life — people, stars, cities — and even if no one looked after Carney and no one suspected him capable of much at all, he was going to make himself into something.

Many years later, Ray owns a store in the heart of Harlem that heralded his arrival: “It wasn’t a bronze plate on a skyscraper, but everybody knew the corner of 125th and Morningside was his, it had his name on it — CARNEY’S — plain as day.

To Whitehead’s great credit, Carney is no Horatio Alger. “Harlem Shuffle” documents all the compromise, regrets, sacrifice, and grift it takes for a Black man like Ray to make it. And Carney’s cousin Freddie is never even that blessed.

Time and again, Freddie falls into hot water. When the fallout of those ill-conceived moves inevitably spills onto Ray, “I didn’t mean to get you in trouble” is Freddie’s constant refrain.

Their relationship is fascinating, poignant and tragic. Carney is the hero, but “Harlem Shuffle” is Freddie’s story too — and Pepper’s, and many others, all compelling and worthy of our attention. I couldn’t look away. Like Elizabeth, Alma and Leland, Freddie is a pivotal part of the rich and multifaceted cast that make Whitehead’s genre-bending novel a triumph.

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