Tiger Woods at the peak of his skills was, understandably, cocky. He would annoy his PGA competitors when after winning a tournament he would tell reporters he only had his “C” game working.
Colson Whitehead is such an outlandishly gifted writer that even though his latest novel, “Harlem Shuffle,” does not quite match his Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Underground Railroad” and “The Nickel Boys” books, it is still an extremely enjoyable read. Whitehead’s turf this time is Harlem from 1959 to 1964.
The book’s main character is Ray Carney, who owns a furniture store. Early in the book Whitehead gives us this: “Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked…”, setting the groundwork for his protagonist’s ambivalence toward law and order. Carney Furniture is on 125th Street and most of the transactions are legitimate and sometimes brought in enough cash to pay the rent and keep food on the table. In 1959 Carney has a wife, Elizabeth, a young daughter and another child on the way.
However, it was the off the book deals from his hidden back room inventory that often kept him afloat. While Carney surveys four console televisions at an unauthorized supplier’s nearby warehouse, the supplier crows, “A man brought those by yesterday. I was told they fell off a truck.” Carney knowingly notes, “Boxes look fine.” The supplier replies, “A very short fall, then.” A deal is consummated and Carney loads the TVs onto his truck and heads back to his showroom.
Harlem itself is as important as any other character in this novel. Whitehead renders this “uptown” section of Upper Manhattan with a mix of wonder and despair. The Apollo and Savoy have lost some of their glamour. Gone were the sightings of Joe Louis, Cab Calloway and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Crime was on the rise and it behooved Carney to keep a low profile with his less than legal activities.
It is difficult to stay straight when the culture around you includes paying protection money to both mobsters and the local precinct detective just to stay in business. Carney’s cousin, Freddie, lures him across a line which separates business as usual, even if a bit crooked, from dangerous activities.
Whitehead uses the dynamics between his characters to create classes: the strivers, the low-rent thieves and the psychotic killers. The black issue of pigmentation prejudice is portrayed by the membership qualifications to the Dunes, a black businessmen’s club. It is known as a paper bag group, blacks darker than a paper bag need not apply. Whitehead chronicles the Harlem race riots of 1964, which were sparked by the killing of a young black man by a white police officer.
All of this is presented in the author’s vivid, commanding voice. So why does it not quite reach the level of his prior works? Perhaps it is the subject matter. Cora in “The Underground Railroad” and Elwood of “The Nickel Boys” are tragic figures who very early in their stories are faced with traumatic circumstances. The plots explode and are propelled forward. In Harlem Shuffle Carney slides in a slow descent into serious criminality. He has a turning point in the novel which seems too egregious to fit his personality. Unlike Cora and Elwood, Carney is to blame for his own travails.
Still, because of Whitehead’s mastery you will meet truly horrifying thugs, wise guy grifters and immoral lawmen in this vibrant portrait of Harlem in the mid 1900s.
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