What does it sound like?:
Apparently after Underground Railroad Colson Whitehead had wanted to write in a less gruelling genre and planned a crime thriller, paying homage to greats like Walter Moseley and Chester Himes. However black people kept getting shot, and so he wrote Nickel Boys instead. Now we finally have Harlem Shuffle, providing an even greater contrast to the two novels than precede it. This is Whitehead in cruise mode, showing us how well he can play with and subvert our expectations of the crime novel, while providing the genre thrills we expect along the way.
Ray Carney is a furniture dealer in late fifties Harlem who as well as running a straightforward business handles radios and settees of questionable origin, while also providing connections between thieves and fences for some side hustle income. Around Ray are his feckless cousin Freddie, often the source of dubious merchandise, and a collection of businessmen, hustlers and crooks.
Ray’s hard-earned lifestyle is challenged by the three heists that make up the plot: in the first a hotel strongbox theft goes wrong; in the second Ray takes revenge on a Harlem grandee who fails to deliver an entree into legitimate business; and in the final one Freddie returns with an enormous jewel stolen from the very top of New York society. After the set-up of the first, these heist capers are set against the real events transforming New York: the Harlem Riots of 1964, and the rebuilding of Manhattan in the late sixties and early seventies
All of these are intricately plotted and end in immaculately conceived set-ups, stickups and shootouts in abandoned buildings.We view them all through Ray’s eyes, and all in their different ways return him to the same questions. How can a black man ever get ahead in a world where the rules are set by the whites and the cards are always stacked? Is Ray’s ‘slightly crooked’ way the best way to get on? There are two metaphors that Ray returns to time and again to try and find the answers – that New York (vividly brought to life here) is two cities, overlaid one on top of the other in a racially defined version of Ui Quoma and Bezel; and that both cities work through an endless cycling of envelopes (real or symbolic) that define obligation, contribution and relationship. Characters who forget which city they are in, or don’t receive and transmit their envelopes properly, put themselves and others in jeopardy.
If this is Whitehead in a more relaxed vein, the questions remain as real and urgent. A pleasure to read from start to finish, and Ray’s journey will stay with you long after the last bullet has been fired.
Review copy provided by Net Galley.
What does it all *mean*?
Tarantino must be optioning this as we speak. Or Netflix for a miniseries as its characters and action jump off the page.
Goes well with…
A map of New York from the sixties as many many fixtures from Blumstein’s furniture store to the Apollo make appearances.
Might suit people who like…
Difficult to think of someone who wouldn’t find something to like this.