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Harlem Shuffle

Colson Whitehead

Little Brown, 2021

Review by Tomiwa Owolade


Ray Carney, the protagonist of Colson Whitehead’s new novel Harlem Shuffle, wants respect — and he does all the right things, as a black man in post-World War II America, to get it. He goes to college, marries a light-skinned black woman, and establishes his own business. But he keeps being lured, often through his mischievous cousin Freddie, into criminal enterprises that compromise his aspirations for respectability.

Over the past five years, Whitehead has become one of the most acclaimed novelists in America — both his last two novels, The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Those novels, in their accumulative portrayal of racist brutality, constitute a kind of horror fiction.

Harlem Shuffle, by contrast, is a heist-caper. The tone of the novel is cooler than his last two novels. The subject matter is less racist violence than the thin border between a kind of racial respectability politics and corruption.

Carney, who owns and runs a furniture shop, wants respect but the legacy of his father — a fearsome criminal called Mike Carney — haunts him. Elizabeth, Carney’s wife, comes from a middle-class black family. Her parents wanted her to be a doctor and lawyer, but she has settled for less: she works for a travel agency and has married Carney, a man her father derisively refers to as ‘a rug peddler’.

The novel has a tripartite structure. In the first part, Carney joins in with a plan to rob the luxurious Hotel Theresa. He is introduced to Miami Joe, a gangster from Florida who looks down on northern blacks, and Pepper, who worked with Carney’s father.

The second part of the book sees Carney engaged in a conflict with Wilfred Duke, who is vividly described as a wealthy banker with a ‘pencil moustache’ and ‘rat whiskers’. Carney wants to join the Dumas Club — a men’s club for the professional black elite of Harlem — but he is denied entry because he comes from an undistinguished background and is a darker-skinned black man.

Carney provides Duke with some money in exchange for membership of the Dumas Club. But this doesn’t come to pass; Duke is a cheat. Carney subsequently gets revenge by photographing Duke in flagrante with a prostitute.

In the third section of the novel, Carney’s cousin Freddie develops a close friendship with a wealthy young man named Linus, imagined as a descendent of Robert A. Van Wyck, the first mayor of New York City. The friendship revolves around drugs, and Linus Wyck subsequently dies of an overdose. His father, a real estate bigwig, goes after Carney as a way to get to Freddie.

The novel takes place between 1959 and 1964, when Harlem was a Black mecca— it was a part of the city that represented a confluence between black southern culture and immigrants from the Caribbean, and between professional blacks and impoverished communities.

Many don’t have deep roots in the area, suggesting that pride, which is what Carney is after, can be cultivated from a blank slate. You don’t have to be tied down by the status of your parents. But when Carney is cheated by Duke, the narrator states: ‘The mistake was to believe he’d become someone else. That the circumstances that shaped him had been otherwise, or that to outrun those circumstances was as easy as moving to a better building or learning to speak right’. Both his race and social background continue to thwart his ambitions for respectability.

Carney, caught between being a virtuous businessman and petty crook, ultimately accepts his status as a middleman: ‘Put it like that, an outside observer might get the idea that Carney trafficked quite frequently in stolen goods’, the narrator states in one passage, ‘but that’s not how he saw it. There was a natural flow of goods in and out and through people’s lives, from here to there, a churn of property, and Ray Carney facilitated that churn. As a middleman. Legit.’

That last passage also illustrates how the novel is written in the English of streetwise New York, and has the excited fluency of an elderly black American man recounting a fond story in a Harlem barbershop: Harlem Shuffle is a paean to the particular richness of New York. And it captures the city’s flexibility, which mirrors the flexibility of Carney’s character: ‘New York was like that sometimes — you turn a corner’, the narrator states, ‘and end up in an entirely different city, like magic’.

Whitehead has demonstrated again his capacity to fluently inhabit and modify a genre. The heist-caper — with its emphasis on theft and insecure ownership — becomes a lens through which he depicts Carney’s attempts to make sense of his constantly shifting identity. Carney wants respect; but Harlem Shuffle shows it comes in many guises.