A heist with a wacky cast of characters, tongue-in-cheek dialogue, questionable criminal skills, and, of course, one or two goofy, incompetent thieves are definitely part of Colson Whitehead’s charm. Harlem Shuffle. But the novel is also a powerful story of a man’s love for his family and the neighborhood where he lives. And the man at the center of this story is a terribly pleasant character who has a real gift for words – if not always the smartest actions.
The novel begins in 1959. Ray Carney is a young husband and father, and the owner of Carney’s Furniture on the famous 125th Street in Harlem. It’s a decent business, but not lucrative enough to allow her to move her family to her Upper West Side dream home on scenic Riverside Drive. Ray has a lot of family and history in Harlem; he and his cousin Freddie grew up together, and they are close in this way, two parents without brothers can become very close when they share their formative years. But Freddie is also that guy who seems to have trouble sleeping. Through no fault of his own (but a few faults from Freddie), Carney is involved in a heist at the Theresa Hotel, also known as the Waldorf of Harlem. The ramifications of that theft and Carney’s reluctant involvement trigger a series of events, near misses, murders, tragedies, and thrills that drive the action of the novel.
Let me say I loved Ray Carney. He loves his wife and immediate family without pause or hesitation. He has a biting mind and is often a philosopher, providing insightful commentary on his time and community. On the other hand, his cantankerous in-laws absolutely can’t stand it – on the one hand, he’s darker than their fair-skinned daughter, and he’s not one of the “Talented Tenth” they would have. preferred that she marry.
“… She says she wants a college man, and I said, I went to college -“
“UCLA,” Carney helped.
“That’s right – University around the corner from Lenox Avenue!” The old joke.
Externally, Carney is still cold. Inside, he’s a man of doubts and doubts – but his worldview can be knee-slapping funny at times. Son of a con artist, Carney points out early on “that he is only slightly bent when it comes to being a con man”. This is one of the most insightful statements he makes. But is it true or false?
Whitehead weaves historical figures, events, and language throughout the novel. One of the funniest passages, oddly enough, takes place during the Harlem Riots of 1964 (six days of riots in Harlem after a white policeman on leave shot dead a black teenager). All of this upheaval doesn’t mean much to a character looking for a snack.
I get off the metro to get a sandwich and the streets are full of people. Raising his fists, waving signs. Singing, “We want Malcolm X! We want Malcolm X!” and “Killer cops must go!” I am hungry. I don’t want to deal with all of this. I’m trying to have a sandwich.
I especially enjoyed Whitehead’s prose, so vividly cinematic it reminded me of some of my favorite grainy heist movies – old and new classics like The asphalt jungle and The usual suspects, or the most recent Widows (and yes, I would love to see it turned into a movie). And each paragraph is full of authentic voices and perfectly unfolded profanity, which adds to the feeling of being there, sitting in the back room of the furniture store or at the Nightbirds bar with Carney, Freddie, Miami Joe, Pepper and Tommy Lips. There are also some fascinating female characters – of course, Carney Elizabeth and Lucinda Cole’s wife, Miss Laura and Aunt Millie. But this is Ray’s book.
And this is Ray’s community and neighborhood. We observe the people, sights and sounds of Harlem from its perspective, chapter by chapter, year by year. Whitehead created a character that exemplifies the classic heist antihero while giving the reader a penetrating glimpse into the life of a black man in Harlem in the 1960s and the circumstances he perhaps couldn’t. not avoid. No matter what problems he finds, we can’t help but support Ray Carney every step of the way.
Colson Whitehead has a few Pulitzers to his credit, as well as several other awards celebrating his outstanding novels. Harlem Shuffle is a thriller crime thriller that’s sure to add to the count – it’s a fabulous novel you must read.
Denny S. Bryce is the author of the historical novel Wild women and the blues.