tue 18/06/2024

Colson Whitehead: Harlem Shuffle review - period piece speaks to the present | reviews, news & interviews

Colson Whitehead: Harlem Shuffle review - period piece speaks to the present

Colson Whitehead: Harlem Shuffle review - period piece speaks to the present

The 'Underground Railroad' novelist lets his hair down with a hardboiled crime piece devoted to 60s Harlem

Two-time Pulitzer winner Colson WhiteheadChris Close

More than once, reading Colson Whitehead’s latest novel Harlem Shuffle, the brilliant Josh and Benny Safdie movie Uncut Gems from 2019 came to mind, which was unexpected. For one, Whitehead’s book takes place on the other side of Central Park, far uptown from the film’s downtown Diamond District setting.

It also unfolds in a meticulously recreated 1960s era Harlem rather than the early 2010s. But like the film, Harlem Shuffle has more than its fair share of precious stones and dollar-stuffed envelopes passing hands and, as its name promises, more than a touch of that film’s hectic energy; a sense for the traffic and jostling between different people and groups – ethnic, economic – that feels quintessentially New York. Both also feature busy picaresque plots; a colourful cast of characters swirling around one man going to extraordinary lengths not only to maintain a double life but to keep the two parts of it – “the straight and the crooked” – separate. 

Our hero Ray Carney has that balancing act down to a pretty fine art, or would do, if it weren’t for his cousin Freddie. Practically brought up together and both sons of negligent fathers, the two men have ended up on very different if occasionally crossing paths. Carney is ever on the up, running a furniture store whose respectable takings he supplements with a sideline business in pawning off jewellery, most of which he gets from Freddie. (He doesn’t ask too many questions about where Freddie gets it from.) This quiet racket allows him to save up for a new apartment in a better area with his wife Elizabeth, who’s used to more comfortable surroundings (as his in-laws never let him forget), and their growing family. But the money flow also helps to keep Freddie afloat: he always seems in danger of going overboard – on weeklong benders – then under. And of taking Carney down with him. Over the years Carney has heard Freddie’s go-to apology, “I didn’t mean to get you in trouble”, a few too many times. 

cover Harlem ShuffleAs the book opens, Freddie has got himself and his cousin into some potentially very big trouble, roping Ray in as the man to handle the stolen goods from a heist at the Hotel Theresa, former epicentre of African American glitz and glamour, that goes a little awry and rubs a local kingpin up the wrong way. The fallout is like a rising tide of sewage Carney constantly has to keep at bay, from swallowing up his livelihood or from taking his cousin’s life. To do so means dipping into a murky world of corrupt cops and trigger happy pimps and power hungry peddlers – a world Carney has always had at least a couple of toes in whether he likes it or not. He is his father’s son, as people keep reminding him, and that struggle to keep his bad side from mixing with the good becomes almost literal as he reverts to the centuries’ old pattern of “dorvay” or segmented sleep – two periods of sleep with midnight hours of activity (in this case, criminal) in between.

As a crime caper (with a revenge plot thrown in) Harlem Shuffle is masterfully crafted; you can’t always tell where it’s going to go. Those moments when you can – when a scene or chapter wraps up a little too neatly, where a wisecrack is a little too wise – are few and far between and at the very least show the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner allowing himself to have a little fun. The heist itself is an flawless setpiece and, although it gets off to a slow start, the book as a whole rattles along like an El train fuelled by street talk and shop floor patter. Just like the masters of the hard-boiled novels he’s clearly been reading, Whitehead is a great riffer and one who can play by ear. He sticks closely to Carney but he also easily slips into other people’s skins and speech. It feels as though all the characters, no matter how tangential to the plot, are given their narrative due; all the lost souls and nightowls seen or heard.

But what really sets Harlem Shuffle out from the crowded market of genre fiction and marks it out as distinctly Whiteheadian (has he earned his own adjective?) is its sense of the larger structures its characters shift in, or else are stuck in. None of characters is actively or expressly political, with perhaps the exception of Carney’s lawyer friend who is making a name for himself working on high-profile civil rights cases – and even then he is as preoccupied with making a name for himself as fighting those battles. For the most part, the major anxieties and events of the book’s 1959-1964 timeline – the threat of nuclear war, the rise of heroin addiction, the civil rights movement – are glimpsed on the periphery, only fleetingly coming into focus, and they feel all the more lived in because of that. One of the riots that rocked Harlem in the wake of the shooting of James Powell serves as backdrop and local colour to Freddie’s search for a good sandwich. Complaints about opioid addicts and looting and the inadequate justice system edge into conversation but take a backseat to self-preservation and everyday survival. And it is remarkable too to see how little those conversations have changed. The particulars, yes, but not the problems. All of which makes Harlem Shuffle a slightly uncanny reading experience. In many ways, the 1960s could be the 2010s. In the end, it’s all fire and ferment. The times they are a-changin’, but the more things change...


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