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Book Review: Harlem Shuffle

Penguin Random House

There will likely never be an adjective “Whiteheadian” — like Wordsworthian, Joycean or Dickensian — because Colson Whitehead, National Book Award recipient and two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, now out with his 10th book, does not prioritize subject matter or genre.

So here he is again, straight off the horrors of The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, with Harlem Shuffle, a comic crime caper set in Harlem in the ’60s, and featuring Ray Carney, son of a dead notorious bad bro. Ray’s a decent guy, a graduate of Queens College, married to upper-class lovely Elizabeth, daughter of Harlem elite. They live with their two children in cramped quarters not far from the furniture store Ray owns on 125th Street. His business degree proudly hangs in his office next to a signed photo of Lena Horne. He’s a reluctant crook, but a compliant one.

Though the novel stars Ray and his bumbling, junked out cousin Freddie, who hustles him into robbery schemes, the real star of the book is Harlem in the early '60s, where everyone of every class and complexion — rich, poor, criminal, banker, wino, police, con — is on the make and take, and where stolen stuff “churns” — “goes in and goes out like the tides.”

The story begins in 1959 and culminates shortly after The Harlem Riots of 1964 in the wake of the killing of a 15-year-old boy by a white policeman. The reader follows the action in three time sections through Ray’s eyes and from the perspective of the criminals and their desperate, inept robbery attempts, including a go at safe deposit boxes at the Hotel Theresa, the Waldorf Astoria of Harlem. As Whitehead has said in interviews, “the world always outwits human ingenuity.”

In Harlem Shuffle he depicts with cool ambivalence, real and fictional, pitiable and violent, events that reflect the unique life of this unique part of the city at a unique time in American cultural history. Though, there are nods to earlier days, as when Whitehead paints the scene at Times Square “round Midnight” — hello, Thelonious Monk.

Relying on family remembrances and researching hustle-and-heist films, mass media and literature, Whitehead creates an N-inflected episodic narrative involving a colorful cast of major and minor players who jostle each other trying to get by and get ahead. The result is an ever-bopping “carnie “ show that he explores with affection and jaundiced savvy.

As to Ray’s self-awareness, “Everyone has secret corners and alleys that no one else saw,” Whitehead writes. Maybe Ray was even “running a con on himself.” Only “slightly bent when it came to being crooked,” Ray tries to keep separate his on-the-level entrepreneurial activities and his increasingly corrupt dealings with Freddie and Pepper, the “Jackie Robinson of safe cracking,” whose slightly digressive rant on being poor and Black in the Army in Burma during World War II is a deeply disturbing testimony to despair and institutional corruption and stupidity.

In a recent interview, Whitehead said that Harlem is bouncing back, as manifest by gentrification and revitalization. “We rebuild and that vitality is very lovely to think about.” Harlem Shuffle is evidence of Whitehead’s unflinching realism, but also of a willed faith in the future.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.