REVIEW: Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

In brief: Ray Carney is a fairly legitimate furniture store owner. But then his cousin drags him into a heist at the Hotel Theresa and it all kicks off from there…

The good: It’s much more light hearted than Whitehead’s previous books.

The not-so-good: Drags a bit at times.

Why I chose it: Always here for Colson Whitehead’s novels.

Year: 2021

Pages: 320

Publisher: Fleet (Hachette)

Setting: Harlem, New York City

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

I was intrigued when I heard the premise of Colson Whitehead’s new novel – 1960s, a heist, Harlem. It all sounded a bit like a gritty Ocean’s Eleven but after reading, I’d say it was more like a milder Peaky Blinders. I was glad that Harlem Shuffle wasn’t as raw as The Underground Railroad but at times I felt it was a little slow or detached. It was still a fun read, and I’d definitely read the sequel I’ve read rumours about.

Ray Carney is a Black furniture salesman and shop owner in 1960s Harlem. Carney (as he is always referred to) grew up with a criminal father who was absent for long stretches. A large chunk of his youth was spent with his cousin Freddie, getting into scrapes (think firecrackers set off in metal rubbish bins). Now Carney is primarily straight. He is deeply invested in furniture designs and trends and deals in some ‘lightly used’ goods too. It’s not up to him to ask where cheap televisions came from. He’s just trying to stay in the game and prove to his in-laws that he’s worthy of their daughter. In the first of three sections of the novel between 1959 and 1964, Freddie drops Carney’s name in for a heist, to move on some goods. But although the heist is successful, there are some angry shady characters about and Carney is sucked into their world. In the second part, Carney tries to join the Black elite but is thwarted despite following the unofficial laws of the street – money for protection. His desire for revenge gets the better of him, but it has surprising effects. In the final act, Freddie is in trouble, bigger than anything that has come before. Carney’s success (both on and off the record) has grown, and now it all threatens to come crashing down as old New York makes way for new skyscrapers and the Harlem riots erupt.

Harlem Shuffle, despite its crime content, is definitely lighter than Whitehead’s recent novels. It has a charm to it too, as it’s hard not to like Carney even with his choices to benefit financially from crime. Race plays a big role in the novel – Carney is on the back foot to start with because of his colour. (For example, he can’t get a contract with a furniture company simply because they’ve never dealt with Black people before). The Harlem riots play a backdrop to momentous times for Carney and Freddie. The 1960s setting too adds to the charm, with Carney’s descriptions of furniture (you can tell Whitehead had fun researching that) and the sayings of the time, like ‘cool it baby’. The descriptions of New York – the Automats, the cinemas, banks of pay phones and cars – all conjure up a city long gone, as do the characters. The shady figures like Miami Joe, Chink Montague and Pepper are all unique, old school gangsters and men of all trades. Whitehead also details the issues that faced Harlem at the time, including racism, poverty and increasing drug use. Some of the action happens off page, or is dealt with very briefly, which was occasionally frustrating. Carney’s regular life of paying gangsters and crooked cops was also monotonous at times. However, the overall story is intriguing with Carney as the ‘slightly bent’ main character who gets in deeper and deeper into a world he doesn’t know whether he wants to be in…but is repeatedly drawn to.

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