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Crime pays … or does it? Colson Whitehead’s ‘Harlem Shuffle’

September 14, 2021
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We have a tendency to want to categorize writers, to pigeonhole them. We like to label them by way of their output: sci-fi writers and literary writers and mystery writers and horror writers and romance writers and on and on and on. It’s easy to do and generally accurate – even authors who diversify tend to be primarily identified by one label, so when we get writers that aren’t so readily tagged, we’re not entirely sure what to call them.

Colson Whitehead is an author who defies those sorts of labels. He’s written speculative fiction – sci-fi and horror. He’s written historical fiction. He’s written immersive participatory nonfiction and literary satire. Really, one of the few descriptors shared across his body of work is “excellent.” As far as previous books go, he’s eight-for-eight.

His latest is “Harlem Shuffle” (Doubleday, $28.95), a crime novel of sorts that offers a vivid look at the Harlem of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. It’s got potboiler DNA, packed with capers and unsavory elements, but all of it is informed by the narrative brilliance of the author. The result is a wild ride of a novel, one that focuses on one man’s inner struggle with his past and present, wherein he seeks to do right by his family while also being the man he wants to be.

Any book by Whitehead is an event – the guy’s last two novels each won the Pulitzer Prize (“The Underground Railroad” in 2017; “The Nickel Boys” in 2020) – but this one feels like something of a throwback. It’s plenty sophisticated and carries forward many of the themes Whitehead traditionally explores in his work, but “Harlem Shuffle” is a looser read, content to lean into the narrative and let the story be what it will be.

And what it will be is outstanding.

Carney lives in Harlem with his wife and child; they’ve got another on the way. He’s a hard worker, a striver; he owns his own furniture store right there on 125th Street. It’s been a climb – he comes from a family of crooks and cons – but he’s played it straight. Well … mostly straight, at any rate. Sure, his wife’s parents don’t think he’s good enough for her – they’re among the city’s Black elite – but he does what he has to do to take care of his family.

He’s doing pretty well for himself, offering a selection of new and gently-used furnishings to his discerning clientele. He’s also reasonable with regard to installment plans, which earns him some goodwill but sometimes leaves him a touch cash-strapped. So if part of his income springs from the sale of items delivered with … questionable provenance, well, what of it? Maybe his cousin Freddie shows up with some jewelry or whatever, Carney knows a guy who can help move it along. As he himself thinks of it, he’s only slightly bent when it comes to being crooked.

But as time passes, Carney finds the draw of the shadier side of the street more and more compelling. And when Freddie’s actions pull him into the periphery of a heist that brings him to the attention of some of the bigger fish in the Harlem pond – on both sides of the law – he’s left to confront his own morality. Like it or not, he’s in it. He’s in the game, torn between the upstanding citizen and the unsavory criminal. How deep remains to be seen.

How far is he willing to go? Can he stay on the (mostly) straight and narrow? Is he going to prove to be far more his father’s son than he ever would have believed possible? Or can he somehow maintain this balancing act, a foot in both worlds? All while operating in a powder keg of a city set to explode?

“Harlem Shuffle” is divided into three sections, set a few years apart – 1959, 1961 and 1964. Whitehead takes us along on Carney’s journey; we’re right there as he deals with the myriad shifts and changes in his world. We’re privy to the choices he makes – both good and bad – as he floats in the gray area between the straight world and the shadows.

The evolution of Carney is fascinating to watch. We’re introduced to his fundamental dichotomy early on, but he’s engaged in a constant struggle. He wants to succeed; ideally, that success would come through socially acceptable means, but he’s enough of a pragmatist – not to mention smart and self-aware enough – to recognize that the paths provided him by the world in which he lives are limited. With each leap forward in time, while Carney’s interiority remains largely the same, the manner in which he presents to the world at large gently shifts. It’s a duality that makes for one hell of a character study.

Prominent among Whitehead’s many gifts is a remarkable ability to evoke a sense of place. “Harlem Shuffle” is no different, packed with tossed-off details that come together to breathe life into the setting. It’s so rare for a writer to be able to fully transport you, but Whitehead is so good at sending you where he wants you to be that you almost can’t help yourself – you’re going, so you might as well pack a bag.

We also get the exploration of racial dynamics that so often permeate Whitehead’s work, though in this case, they’re baked into the setting. With a few exceptions, Carney’s orbit consists entirely of fellow African-Americans – racial inequity here is an invisible constant, the water in which these fish are swimming. Even as resentment simmers and flares into protests and even riots, Carney and those of his ilk view the uneven playing field as simple reality. To their mind, you don’t protest reality – you accept it, as unpleasant as it may sometimes be. That mindset – as well as the stratified social echelons within Harlem society – provides compelling insight into this cast of characters.

And lest we forget, “Harlem Shuffle” isn’t afraid to get into the pulpier aspects of crime fiction. There are notes of inspiration drawn from the sorts of dime novels that Whitehead references numerous times within the context of the narrative. His prose isn’t nearly as purple and his storytelling isn’t nearly as grimy, but there’s some spiritual overlap there, not least in the almost compulsive readability of Whitehead’s prose. Once you’re in, you’re in – get ready to spend some time.

Look, “Harlem Shuffle” probably won’t be Colson Whitehead’s third straight Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. That likelihood doesn’t change the underlying truth – that this book is fantastic. This is the work of a man who loves and respects the possibilities presented by genre, a man who is unafraid to tell the stories he wants to tell in the manner in which he wants to tell them.

Make it nine-for-nine.

Last modified on Thursday, 16 September 2021 09:21

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