Colson Whitehead has said how much he enjoyed writing Harlem Shuffle and it shows. This, at times, very, very funny tale of Ray Carney, who as Colson writes, “Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked” is a joy to read. Set in the Harlem of the late 1950s and early ‘60s this novel is alive with colourful characters - hustlers, gangsters, people aspiring for better or to be better and people just trying to get by. The stage for this cast is Harlem which Whitehead draws with such energy it becomes more than just a backdrop, it is a character. Life is fluid on her streets - one step forward, two steps back, or for Ray just a little one two sidestep.
Ray is trying to make his way as a “purveyor of fine new and gently used pieces for the home”, his income bolstered by the odd bit of fencing. He is happily married, he enjoys his work and is proud of his showroom, life is ticking along. Enter Freddie. Freddie is Ray’s cousin and, well, a bad lot. Since childhood Freddie has enmeshed Ray in his schemes, he is the bad influence every mother fears. It is Freddie’s latest scam that sets Ray onto the dangerous path that forms the plot of Harlem Shuffle.
In Harlem Shuffle Whitehead has very successfully employed humor to temper the brutality and cruelty found in Underground Railway or Nickel Boys. However themes of racism, classism, political corruption and abuse still form the scaffolding and it is testament to Whitehead’s skill as a storyteller that it works so well. There are no jarring gear changes in this novel as it moves from gangster turf wars to the race riots of the 60’s. Funny and at times tender it is a very satisfying read.
Colson Whitehead has won the Pulitzer twice, The National Book Award and a MacArthur “genius” Grant, he is incapable of writing badly. Harlem Shuffle is a great Christmas read for your mum, dad, brother, sister, aunt or uncle. After having read it yourself first of course.
For The Underground Railroad Colson Whitehead won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Fiction, the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence and was longlisted for the Booker Prize. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for a second time for The Nickel Boys, which also won the George Orwell Prize for Political Fiction and The Kirkus Prize. The Harlem Shuffle is his latest novel.
A sizzling heist novel set in civil rights-era Harlem . . . It's a superlative story, but the most impressive achievement is Whitehead's loving depiction of a Harlem 60 years gone, which lands as detailed and vivid as Joyce's Dublin. Don't be surprised if this one wins Whitehead another major award - Publishers Weekly (starred review)
‘Ray Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked…’
To his customers and neighbors on 125th street, Carney is an upstanding salesman of reasonably-priced furniture, making a life for himself and his family. He and his wife Elizabeth are expecting their second child, and if her parents on Striver’s Row don’t approve of him or their cramped apartment across from the subway tracks, it’s still home.
Few people know he descends from a line of uptown hoods and crooks, and that his facade of normalcy has more than a few cracks in it. Cracks that are getting bigger and bigger all the time.
See, cash is tight, especially with all those instalment plan sofas, so if his cousin Freddie occasionally drops off the odd ring or necklace at the furniture store, Ray doesn’t see the need to ask where it comes from. He knows a discreet jeweller downtown who also doesn’t ask questions.
Then Freddie falls in with a crew who plan to rob the Hotel Theresa – the ‘Waldorf of Harlem’ – and volunteers Ray’s services as the fence. The heist doesn’t go as planned; they rarely do, after all. Now Ray has to cater to a new clientele, one made up of shady cops on the take, vicious minions of the local crime lord, and numerous other Harlem lowlifes.
Thus begins the internal tussle between Ray the striver and Ray the crook. As Ray navigates this double life, he starts to see the truth about who actually pulls the strings in Harlem. Can Ray avoid getting killed, save his cousin, and grab his share of the big score, all while maintaining his reputation as the go-to source for all your quality home furniture needs?
Harlem Shuffle is driven by an ingeniously intricate plot that plays out in a beautifully recreated Harlem of the early 1960s. It’s a family saga masquerading as a crime novel, a hilarious morality play, a social novel about race and power, and ultimately a love letter to Harlem.