I count on Colson Whitehead to surprise me.
Since his debut novel in 1999, he’s published 10 books, confidently switching style and form among speculative fiction and satire, a coming-of-age story and one about a zombie apocalypse.
His last two, the nightmare-shaped historical novel The Underground Railroad and the moving The Nickel Boys, each won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and an array of other honors for their unflinching portraits of racism in America. (The TV series based on The Underground Railroad is up for seven Emmys on Sunday.)
They are somber books. His new novel, Harlem Shuffle, is full of deadpan humor and side-eyed satire, looking most like crime fiction but — of course — full of other surprises.
Harlem Shuffle takes place in about the same historical period as the first part of The Nickel Boys, but in a very different world. Instead of Jim Crow rural Florida, Whitehead sets his story this time in the bustling heart of Harlem. The book’s structure is a triptych, its linked stories set in 1959, 1961 and 1964.
In all of them, the main character is Ray Carney, a lifelong Harlem resident with big dreams. Not yet 30, he’s already putting those dreams into action — he’s put himself through college and, with a business degree and careful saving (and certain windfalls), become the proprietor of Carney’s Furniture on 125th Street, a busy business strip.
Ray sincerely loves selling furniture. The passages describing the mid-century modern wares in his store, “with those clean lines and jet-set emanations,” are among the most lyrical in the book, and he likes to walk the neighborhood imagining goods he’s sold in people’s apartments, just as he loves to stroll Riverside Drive and imagine his family living in one of the elegant apartments there.
He and his wife, Elizabeth, have a daughter, May, and a baby on the way. The marriage is solid even though her snobby parents, who brought her up on nearby Striver’s Row, think she “settled.” They annoy Ray, but he’s a striver himself.
He also has a side hustle. Ray’s mother died when he was young, and he was brought up alternately by his by-the-book Aunt Millie and his father, Big Mike, an all-around small-time criminal — dual influences he still struggles to balance.
Big Mike is gone, but his connections aren’t, and Ray operates a discreet business as a fence, handling TVs that fell off trucks, jewelry of undocumented provenance, that sort of thing. He’s very careful, and that’s why he says no when his cousin Freddie offers to bring him in on a big heist.
Freddie is Millie’s son and the enthusiastic bad angel on Ray’s shoulder; his signature phrase since he and Ray were boys together is “I didn’t mean to get you in trouble.” The big heist is a late-night raid on the Hotel Theresa, known as the “Waldorf of Harlem,” where Black celebrities and high rollers lay their heads — and store their gems and bankrolls in the safe deposit boxes.
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Ray wants nothing to do with the scheme, but when it goes sideways Freddie comes straight to him. Pretty soon Ray has “dumped a body in Mount Morris Park, per the local custom. From the way the newspapers wrote about the park, he thought there might be a line. It was easier than he thought, getting rid of a body. ...”
In the course of the Hotel Theresa job, he gets to know another man who will play an important role in his life. “Pepper was born in a gray clapboard house on Hillside Avenue in Newark. Womb-wet and shaking, he belted his mother in the face when she lifted him for a kiss. ‘First punch,’ he told her years later, bored of hearing the story.”
The book’s second section is a riotous story of revenge, kicked off when Ray gets an unexpected invitation to join an exclusive Black businessmen’s club his father-in-law belongs to. Ray is suspicious because he knows it’s a “paper bag club,” and his skin is too dark to pass muster. When he plots vengeance, he has no idea how many dominoes he’ll tip.
In the third section, Ray’s straight life gets ever more successful, while his criminal connections get harder to shake — and his understanding of the criminal class in New York expands past Harlem and down Park Avenue.
Whitehead populates Harlem Shuffle with a cast of rowdy characters, most of whom he treats with tenderness, including the hapless Freddie.
The news of the day crops up — the travel agency where Elizabeth works helps book safe routes for civil rights activists, and in 1964 a riot rocks Harlem after a white police officer shoots an unarmed black teenager to death. Ray sends his employees home and puts a “Negro Owned” sign in his store window.
But the book focuses warmly on its characters’ daily lives and on the place where they live. Rich with affectionate detail, it’s as much a love song to Harlem as a shuffle. Just as a lover strives to understand his beloved, ever fascinated, Ray can always be dazzled by his city.
When he accompanies a crooked cop picking up bribes, Whitehead writes, “places Carney had never seen before were suddenly rendered visible, like caves uncovered by low tide, branching into dark purpose. They’d never not been there, offering a hidden route to the underworld. This tour with Munson on his rounds took Carney to places he saw every day, establishments on his doorstep, places he’d walked by ever since he was a kid, and exposed them as fronts. The doorways were entrances into different cities — no, different entrances into one vast, secret city. Ever close, adjacent to all you know, just underneath. If you know where to look.”
By Colson Whitehead
Doubleday, 336 pages, $28.95