Harlem Shuffle, by Colson Whitehead*****

Ray Carney has a foot in both worlds, and he isn’t given to thinking too deeply about that. As the son of a badass criminal, he considers that he has turned out quite respectably; yet, when Cousin Freddie occasionally brings a consignment piece of jewelry to his store, he doesn’t ask many questions about its history. Thus begins a slow, steady slide, from being a mostly-straight retailer, to a mostly-crooked fence. But oh, what a glorious story it makes!

My thanks go to Doubleday and Net Galley for the invitation to read and review. You can buy this book now.

The first time I read Colson Whitehead was when The Underground Railroad was published five years ago. It was unquestionably a work of genius, but it was also a fair amount of work to read. Then The Nickel Boys came out, and when I finally found a copy, it was well written yet so harsh, and at a difficult time for me personally, that I thanked my lucky stars that it wasn’t a review copy, and I gave myself permission to abandon it. So thus far, my admiration for this author has been tempered by the awareness that I would need to roll up my sleeves, or to brace myself, or both.

Harlem Shuffle contains none of that. It’s told in linear fashion, beginning in the late 1950s and ending in the late 1960s. The writing is first rate, as one might anticipate, but it’s also an unmitigated pleasure to read.

Our protagonist, Carney, has married up. His beautiful wife Elizabeth comes from a family with lighter skin, higher social position, and a good deal more money. Elizabeth loves him, but she has expectations. As his young family grows to include a son and daughter, the pressure increases. But let’s not kid ourselves; this isn’t just about Carney supporting his family:

“If he got a thrill out of transforming these ill-gotten goods into legit merchandise, a zap-charge in his blood like he’d plugged into a socket, he was in control of it and not the other way around. Dizzying and powerful as it was. Everyone had secret corners and alleys that no one else saw…The thing inside him that gave a yell or tug or shout now and again was not the same thing his father had. The sickness drawing every moment into its service…Carney had a bent to his personality, how could he not, growing up with a father like that. You had to know your limits as a man and master them…His intent was bent but he was mostly straight, deep down.”

Freddie comes to Carney with a plan: he and his confederates intend to rob the Hotel Theresa, which is the pride of Harlem, the place to stay for Negro patrons of breeding and taste. It was almost sacrilege; and yet, it would also be a fantastic take. Would Ray Carney put out some feelers to find out who could move the sorts of valuable baubles that might be found in the hotel safe? Ray tells him of course not. No no no no no. A thousand times no! And then, he commences doing exactly that.

There are several aspects of this tale that make it exceptional. Whitehead resists the amateurish urge to fall back on pop culture of the period, instead imparting the culture and the pressures of the time more subtly. Racism against Negroes (the acceptable term of the time) by Caucasians; racism by light-skinned Negroes against darker ones, such as Carney; cop violence against all of them; the difficulty faced by Harlem merchants that want to carry first-class products but must first persuade snooty Caucasian company representatives; protection rackets endemic to Harlem, run by Negro criminals as well as cops, so that envelopes had to be passed to multiple representatives every month; and a plethora of other obstacles, stewed into the plot seamlessly, never resembling a manifesto. There’s Whitehead’s matchless ability to craft his characters, introducing each with a sketch so resonant that I had to reread them before moving on; highlight them; then go back and read them a third time after I’d finished the book. My favorite secondary character is Pepper, an older thug so terrifying that even the cops wince when they’re near him. And then there are brief shifts in point of view, and again, my favorite of these is Pepper’s.

Carney isn’t a brilliant decision maker, but he is an underdog, and he’s a survivor as well, and both of these things make me cheer him on. I haven’t had so much fun in a long damn time. When events escalate, Carney finds himself rolling a corpse into a fine carpet, and I can only hope that he chose a relatively cheap rug, because otherwise, what a waste! Those that love the genre mustn’t miss this book, filled with everything anyone could ever want in a noir-style crime novel. Do it, do it, do it!