Harlem Shuffle: A Novel
“Harlem Shuffle, a captivating crime novel from two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead, renders 1960s Harlem in vivid and evocative detail, simmering with race and class tension and teeming with corruption and vice.”
In many ways a learned and loving homage to the great mid-century Harlem noir of Chester Himes, Harlem Shuffle, a captivating crime novel from two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead, renders 1960s Harlem in vivid and evocative detail, simmering with race and class tension and teeming with corruption and vice. But the novel draws much of its resonance from contrasting glimpses of the world just beyond its Harlem-centric heart, capsule visions of a shape-shifting but permanently partitioned city.
Harlem Shuffle centers on the struggles of Ray Carney, proprietor of a slowly growing 125th Street furniture store and small-time side hustle moving stolen televisions, radios, and jewelry, to keep the straight and bent sides of his life in balance. Consistently undermining his efforts to keep his and his wife and daughter’s heads above water are his elitist and disapproving Strivers’ Row in-laws, his ne’er-do-well cousin Freddie, and the everyday costs of doing business in Harlem, which Whitehead portrays as an unending exchange of envelopes containing payoffs of various sizes to crooks ostensibly positioned on both sides of the law.
Freddie—childhood running buddy, thief, and frequent heroin abuser (the book takes its title from a 1963 hit by R & B duo Bob & Earl that depicts a junkie’s gait in the radio-friendly guise of a dance step)—sets the book’s events in motion at a brisk and rarely relenting clip when he drags Ray into a plan to knock over the safety deposit boxes at the Hotel Theresa, the world-renowned “Waldorf of Harlem.” Even if the hotel itself was showing unmistakable signs of decline from its celebrity-studded heyday, plotting such a heist was a slap in the face to the spirit of Black aspiration. “Robbing the Hotel Theresa was like taking a piss on the Statue of Liberty,” Whitehead writes. “It was like slipping Jackie Robinson a Mickey the night before the World Series.”
When Freddie ropes Ray into the Theresa job, it pulls him into the violent orbit of an array of intemperate gangsters that give the novel a hard-boiled edge unmatched in Whitehead’s career to date. Also a wonderfully interior hard-boiled novel somewhat in the mold of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins and Socrates Fortlow books, Harlem Shuffle is at its funniest and most profound when operating inside of Ray’s head.
Harlem Shuffle also presents a compelling family story, riven by class stratification that separates Ray’s light-skinned, Strivers’ Row in-laws, pillars of Harlem’s monied Black bourgeoisie with their “impeccable lineage,” from their “rug-peddler” son-in-law.
This isn’t the first time Whitehead has had a go at the Strivers’ Row elite: recall in John Henry Days, the Sepia Ladies Society doyenne railing against “good-for-nothing niggers” who “pretend that just because they don’t have to pick cotton they have no more duties to attend to,” and scolding her daughter for sullying the family’s baby grand with “gutter music” blues and ragtime.
As Ray contemplates his in-laws’ pompous race-consciousness—“proud, up to a point—light enough to pass for white, but a little too eager to remind you that they could pass for white”—he wonders if his mother-in-law recoiled when she first saw her granddaughter’s skin, which favored Ray’s darker tone. Now, with Ray’s wife Elizabeth expecting again, Ray muses, “Did she stare at her daughter’s belly and wonder whose blood would win out this time?”
Comprising three sections set in the scorching summers of 1959, 1961, and 1964, and three satisfying and nearly self-contained crime stories, Harlem Shuffle often situates itself historically via glancing views of contemporary events just outside the frame, such as the Freedom Rides of 1961 (Ray’s wife, Elizabeth, helps CORE members navigate the Jim Crow South with Negro Motorist Green Book-style guidance via her travel agency work), the Harlem race riot of June 1964, and the 1964–65 World’s Fair. Most of the Harlem uprising happens east of Carney’s Furniture, leaving the store spared. But the aftermath of the uprising looms large over the entire 1964 segment, both in its devastation of Harlem and the fact that its occurrence remains entirely imperceptible a few blocks south.
The World’s Fair casts a fainter and a more distant shadow, but Ray’s ruminations on the Tomorrow-Land vision presented in its grand pavilions in faraway Flushing, and its contrast with the “blackened ruin” of Harlem “in the aftermath days,” are peak Whitehead, unerringly precise and uncannily perceptive.
“You didn’t need to journey far, certainly didn’t need three-stage rockets and manned capsules and arcane telemetry to see what else we were capable of,” Whitehead writes. “If Carney walked five minutes in any direction, one generation’s immaculate townhouses were the next’s shooting galleries, slum blocks testified in a chorus of neglect, and businesses sat ravaged and demolished after nights of violent protest. What had started it, the mess this week? A white cop shot an unarmed black boy three times and killed him. Good old American know-how on display: We do marvels, we do injustice, and our hands were always busy.”
The tangled web of hustles in which Ray becomes enmeshed—mostly, though not entirely through the disastrous judgments of his cousin Freddie—drive him improbably, if not implausibly into direct conflict with Black and white New York’s most entrenched, powerful, and ruthless families. He also finds himself in the crosshairs of an assortment of colorfully monikered gangsters like Chink Montague, Chet the Vet, and Yea Big—perhaps Whitehead’s most comically named character since Sag Harbor’s N.P. It’s easy (and quite appealing) to imagine some or all of Harlem Shuffle’s underworld cast returning in a second Ray Carney novel, just as replete with delightful snatches of hood and hustler dialogue concerning the ins and outs of the dinette sets and recliners that populated early ’60s furniture catalogs and store showrooms.
With Harlem Shuffle’s hard-boiled bent, Whitehead adroitly sidesteps comparisons to his two back-to-back Pulitzer Prize winners. This new novel is no slave narrative in the fractured funhouse mirror mode of The Underground Railroad, or the wrenching, infuriating, unadorned realism of Nickel Boys—two books that lay bare “the true face of America” and find little to distinguish experiences of enslavement and post-enslavement except the centuries in which they occur.
But Harlem Shuffle does deliver, again and again, the incisive and mordant humor found in nearly all of Whitehead’s books, not least as Ray contemplates the multiple ironies of deliberately planning to rob a Harlem landmark like the Theresa Hotel on June 19th. Unfamiliar with the holiday, Ray asks his salesclerk Rusty, a recent transplant from the rural South, to explain it. “Juneteenth is when those slaves in Texas found out slavery was over,” Rusty tells him. “My cousins used to throw a party to celebrate.”
“Finding out you were free six months after the fact,” Ray reflects, “didn’t seem like something to celebrate.”