Colson is coming to Haarlem

COLSON WHITEHEAD is one of the most talented storytellers in contemporary fiction, and watching him change his approach and tense new muscles is an immensely entertaining read. Already tackling everything from zombies to metaphorical railroads, Whitehead turned to noir and humor for his latest release, Harlem Shuffle. Immediately a character study about a furniture salesman living in New York City in the early 1960s and a story that explores how even good people can be a little crooked for the right reasons, Harlem Shuffle is a funny, violent novel that doubles as a love letter to New York City’s seedy underbelly and the plethora of characters that made it unique.

Ray Carney owns a furniture store in Harlem and lives with his pregnant wife Elizabeth and their child in a small apartment across from the subway. Carney does well for himself and his business is legitimate, but he has deep roots in the crime world. These come from his father, who was a full-time petty criminal, and his cousin Freddie, who does the same and has a long history of getting Carney into trouble. And some things never change. With one kid at home and another on the way, it’s easy for Carney to start doing things a little less legitimate than selling couches, so he moves stolen goods for Freddie from time to time.

When Freddie finds himself in a crew planning to rob Hotel Theresa, known as “Harlem’s Waldorf,” he brings in Carney to transport some of the stolen goods. Nothing goes as planned, but Carney soon finds himself working with the crooked cops, mobsters, thieves and other illiterate people who make up Harlem’s underworld. However, his dream of becoming a successful businessman – someone who has nothing to do with the world his father lived in – is always there. Unfortunately, his need for cash outweighs his desire for legitimacy, so Carney gets involved in more jobs and eventually becomes the leader of one when he exacts revenge on a powerful banker who ripped him off, an event that opened Carney’s eyes and left him. see how high corruption goes in New York City.

Harlem Shuffle is many things. At first glance, it is a crime novel with a family saga at its core. However, as readers have come to expect from Whitehead, the story is also an exploration of race and power dynamics coupled with a tale of the eternal struggle between ethics and need when money comes into play.

The first striking element in this novel is the structure. More than a classic story with an incendiary incident, Whitehead wrote what feels like three or four novellas seamlessly intertwined by the same characters, with Carney always the epicenter. After Hotel Theresa’s job, what felt like the story’s biggest problem quickly turns into something else—the aftermath and a new job—and eventually turns into something entirely new. These constant shifts keep the story moving forward at all times and make the characters more important than what’s happening right now.

Ray Carney is a memorable character whose struggle is universal, even if his reasons for doing what he does are unique. Whitehead created a character who delves into crime simply because he wants a better life. For Carney, it is never the point to hurt others; he just knows that doing bad things can help him do the good things he wants to do and achieve the upward social mobility he’s always longed for:

The apartment door was chained—only Alma locked it when he was gone—and he had to knock to be let into his own house. A crook in the morning and this lady in the night. He waited. The odd couple next door had left a bag of something filthy outside the door, and the stains and grime in the hallways were more noticeable than usual. Sometimes the rumble of the train moved through steel struts and concrete into the building and he felt it in his feet, as he does now. How had he subjected his wife and child to this place all this time?

As with most of Whitehead’s body of work, Harlem Shuffle is painfully accurate and wonderfully impertinent in its presentation of racism. From the differences Carney notes in the way white people navigate the world to a cop who shoots a black boy and emerges unscathed from the aftermath, this novel presents the racial tensions as they were in the early 1960s, a time which is certainly not old history. However, there are also plenty of examples of black excellence — the list of great musicians alone deserves a separate essay — and the kind of writing that celebrates black people’s resilience and the way they’ve learned to operate in a country that never welcomed them. . Elizabeth works for a travel agency that caters to black people, and a description on a map in her office sums it up perfectly:

On the wall by Elizabeth’s office, they had a map of the United States and the Caribbean with pins and red markers to mark the cities and towns and routes Black Star was promoting. Stay on the path and you will be safe, eat in peace, sleep in peace, breathe in peace; digress and beware. Work together and we can undermine their evil order. It was a map of the black nation within the white world, part of the greater thing, but its own self, independent, with its own constitution. If we didn’t help each other, we’d be lost.

Harlem Shuffle is memorable for the way it brings together a family saga, a heist novel, and an exquisite, carefully researched portrayal of 1960s Harlem street life. Ray Carney, however, is what most readers will remember the most. He’s a normal guy who gets into some very quirky situations while trying to change his life, and in the sense that he’s like anyone who’s ever done that, meaning his wins are just like ours, and that’s true. also for his failures: “The mistake was to believe that he would become someone else. That the circumstances that had formed him had been different, or that it was as easy to avoid those circumstances as moving to a better building or learning well speak.”

Colson Whitehead is an outstanding chronicler of our time who also has a knack for bringing the past to the page with incredible clarity, and Harlem Shuffle proves that once again.


Gabino Iglesias is the author of Coyote songs (2018) and Zero Saints (2015).

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