Colson Whitehead is an author I’ve been meaning to read for ages. He’s won the Pulitzer Prize twice; for The Underground Railroad in 2017 and for The Nickel Boys in 2020. I picked up his 2021 release, Harlem Shuffle (Doubleday) as my introduction to Whitehead, and what a sharp, sly read it is.
“Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked…” is how the novel starts, and it is the first introduction to Ray Carney the reader gets. The novel is set in three parts, with the first taking place in 1959, the second in 1961, and the third in 1964. As time progresses, Ray gets a little more bent toward crooked than straight.
Ray’s father was a hustler, and Ray knew that wasn’t the life he wanted for himself. He purchased a furniture store and is an upstanding business owner, husband, and father. Sure, he purchased the store with his father’s ill-gotten gains, and yes, he’s a fence for stolen items, but the lion’s share of his business is on the up and up. But in 1959, his cousin, Freddie, gets him involved in a plan to rob the Hotel Theresa, and that line between upstanding and crooked shifts.
The heist goes poorly, but Ray earns a reputation among the high profile criminals moving in the shadows of Harlem. Within a couple of years, his low scale fencing operation has grown, and he is able to expand the furniture store. After being hoodwinked by a friend of his father-in-law, Ray becomes bitter and hellbent on revenge – collateral consequences be damned. Unlike the heist on the Hotel Theresa, Ray’s plan is a success; it doesn’t matter who gets hurt along the way.
As time goes by, he keeps thinking he’ll get out of the business, that he doesn’t need the money anymore, but then Freddie pulls him into another con – this time with an extremely prominent and filthy rich white family with a drug-addled son. And this time, they know Carney’s name.
It’s a crime novel, make no mistake about that, but it’s also a novel about survival and the choices we make. And it’s a novel about family and the choices they force us to make. It already reads like a blockbuster, and I’d love to see it on the screen. That’s not something I usually say, but I think they could do Harlem Shuffle justice.
Read this book.