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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.

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