By Izzy Stringham
White River Books
Coming on the heels of two Pulitzer Prize winning novels, ‘Harlem Shuffle’ by Colson Whitehead is a caper of a crime novel set in early 1960s Harlem. The story centers around Ray Carney, a used furniture salesman with a few small side hustles and a conscience keeping him from getting too deep into the criminal world that surrounds him.
Ray grew up fast, with a criminal for a father and a mother who died when he was a child. His early life on the edges of his hoodlum father’s life made him go straight. He finished school, bought a business and got married and had children. He ran his furniture store as a legitimate business, working to climb the social ladder in Harlem, but maybe just once in a while moving stolen items and keeping a finger on the pulse of the crime in the neighborhood.
When Ray’s cousin Freddie comes to him with a plan to rob the famous Hotel Teresa, he gets roped into a series of events that are much bigger than he is. Ray’s past ties to the criminal underbelly of Harlem become more intertwined and harder to get out of. He finds himself wrapped up with all sorts of dubious characters, and the lines he drew between his father the crook and himself as a self-made business owner start to get blurry.
The book’s plot begins with the heist at the Hotel Teresa and only gets more complex as Ray is faced with the choice to move and hide stolen goods, protect men with no moral character and hatch a scheme for revenge against a powerful Black man in the community who slighted him.
The ease of falling into crime and desperation to succeed are themes which follow Ray through the entire book. At what point is being crooked inevitable? Can anyone actually pull themselves up into middle class comfort with all the challenges that being Black and poor in Harlem in 1960 present? Or is it justified that “Ray Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked, in practice and ambition.”
The idea of crime and redemption is a central part of the story. Each character has their flaws and their struggles, from greasing each other’s palms to moving stolen goods and getting involved in much more dangerous situations. ‘Harlem Shuffle’ takes a good hard look at the economics and morals of a criminal life.
Whitehead’s superb prose and cast of memorable characters make ‘Harlem Shuffle’ a book to get lost in. His deep understanding of Harlem, New York City as a whole, and the hum and buzz of a city of strivers and climbers give real heft to a story that goes deeper than just a tale of criminal mischief. The lives he describes are authentic, as are the choices and conundrums Ray faces. With honesty, humor and more than one reference to mid-century furniture companies, Colson Whitehead has produced a book as complex and colorful as the streets where the story took place.
‘Harlem Shuffle’ is now out in paperback. Copies are available at White River Books in Carbondale.
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