A Literary Heavyweight

In New York City, Harlem is one of many neighborhoods that crisscross the metropolis. Located in Upper Manhattan, it was established as a settlement in 1658 by the Dutch governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant. It was originally called Nieuw Haarlem, after the Dutch city of Haarlem. From its humble beginnings, the neighborhood saw several drastic changes, from its razing to the ground during the American Revolution to its being a refugee for migrants to its being the center of an artistic movement known as the Harlem renaissance. At the same time, it has witnessed the rapid transformation of New Amsterdam into the New York City of today. In the contemporary, Harlem has become a cultural melting pot that was also synonymous with New York City.

Despite the diversity that exists in the neighborhood, Harlem has been inaccurately used as a synonym for Big Apple’s African American population. It did, however, play a key role during the Civil Rights Movement when it was the main platform for political, social, and economic empowerment. It was this vibrant neighborhood with rich history whose atmosphere Colson Whitehead captured in his latest novel, Harlem Shuffle. Commencing in 1959, Whitehead’s eighth novel charted the story of Ray Carney, a young and devoted father of two. To earn a living, he ran and operated a shop located on the corner of Morningside Avenue and the famed 125th Street. He has earned a reputation among the denizens as a seller of decently priced pieces of furniture. He was driven by his dream of climbing up the social ladder and owning his dream home on the Upper West Side on scenic Riverside Drive. His wife, Elizabeth, on the other hand, was working at t black travel agency.

In striving to earn an honest living, first-generation college graduate Ray was also determined to make something out of himself; he wanted to establish himself as an upstanding and respectable citizen. However, every street and corner of Harlem reminds him of his family’s complicated and shady history. His father, Mike, was a small-time thief and he wanted to forget this part of his family history. Meanwhile, he was close with his cousin Freddie who he grew up together with. They have a closely-knit bond akin to brotherhood. However, in time, their paths started to diverge. As Ray was striving to be a better version of himself, Freddie was slowly descending towards the depths of the New York City criminal underground.

“He felt unreal those days of the riots when his streets were made strange by violence. Despite what America saw on the news, only a fraction of the community had picked up bricks and bats and kerosene. The devastation had been nothing compared to what lay before him now, but if you bottled the rage and hope and fury of all the people of Harlem and made it into a bomb, the results would look something like this.”

~ Colson Whitehead, Harlem Shuffle

The story was divided into three distinct parts scattered across three different time periods: The Truck (1959), Dorvay (1961), and Cool It Baby (1964). In Ray’s story, we read of how he overcame poverty and a difficult childhood to make a name for himself. In Whitehead’s portrayal, we read of the quintessence of the American Dream in a period when it still held a slender form of hope. But then again, as Ray would later on learn, the path towards the zenith of success is often fraught with challenges. While his furniture shop earned him some level of respectability, it was not lucrative enough to make him realize his grand dreams. He was also slowly being bogged down by different pressures which were emanating from different sides.

No matter what Ray does to separate himself from the other side of his family history, his family always finds a way back to him. No matter how much he wanted to conform to society’s definition of honest living, necessity and unfortunate circumstances keep pushing him toward the brink. Without any recourse, he started fencing stolen goods, including those that his cousin occasionally dropped by. A bigger opportunity came when Freddie planned the grand heist of Theresa Hotel, a fancy hotel dubbed the “Waldorf of Harlem”. It was contrary to his aspirations but Ray reluctantly agreed. As always, things didn’t go as planned due to poor decision-making and a poorly executed plan. Despite the resounding failure of the scheme, Ray, in the process, found himself a new set of clientele. It was, however, the sort of clients he never dreamt of dealing with. What ensued were murders, near-misses, and tragedies, the book’s main drivers.

As Ray’s business expanded, he built a second entrance to his store. This second door, however, goes directly to his office. It was through this entrance that he received felonious clients. In a way, this separate door was symbolic as it was the manifestation of Ray’s double life. The second entrance also carried far more implications. On a grander scale, it was the depiction of a city where people had to do side hustles in order to make a decent living; it was a common reality, especially for those who were less fortunate. On the other hand, legitimate businesses were used as fronts for illegal activities by the criminal underworld. Historically, Harlem has high poverty incidence and high crime rates. At one point, it was the stronghold of the Sicilian mafia and other organized gangs that wreaked havoc both in and outside of the neighborhood. Both of these facets that characterized Harlem were vividly captured by Whitehead.

On top of these growing social and economic concerns, the neighborhood and its denizens had to deal with socio-political concerns. The dynamics of the city’s power structures were underscored by the novel. Further exacerbating these concerns was the pervasive corruption of the New York City political machine. The local cops, on the other hand, were brutally racist and equally corrupt. They continuously demanded protection money; even the criminals demanded such sums from businesses. Local and legitimate businesses, despite their principles, had no other recourse but to bribe those who had power in spades. At the end of the day, they had to ensure their safety and their business. It was a cardinal rule of survival in Harlem’s labyrinthine ecosystem.

The red carpet outside the Waldorf of Harlem was the theater for daily and sometimes hourly spectacles, whether it was the sight of the heavyweight champ waving to fans as he climbed into a Cadillac, or a wrung-out jazz singer splashing out of a Checker cab at three a.m. with the devil’s verses in her mouth. The Theresa desegregated in 1940, after the neighborhood tipped over from Jews and Italians and became the domain of Southern blacks and West Indians. Everyone who came uptown had crossed some variety of violent ocean.

~ Colson Whitehead, Harlem Shuffle

Another seminal subject tackled by Whitehead was the growing wealth disparities as the insatiable appetite of New York’s elite leads to economic exploitation. They were obstacles in the ordinary man’s achievement of his dreams. While the ordinary man dreams to own a house, the rich man desires to own the entire building. The expansion of their businesses has become second nature to them. But to say that corruption laid entirely on the hands of the white man was erroneous. With Whitehead’s unrelenting gaze, he was also able to portray the corruption that exists among Black capitalists who had no reservations in taking advantage of the struggling entrepreneurs. Whitehead subtly underscored how crime exists at all levels of society. It also disregards class and background.

All in all, Harlem was a place brimming with disadvantages. Despite these disadvantages, Ray remained optimistic; he was adamant in his desire to succeed. However, in order for him to achieve his dreams, he had to grapple with institutional and systemic racism, a major social concern that reverberates into the contemporary. The novel also captured different forms of racism; after all, it was a subject that was common among the Whitehead’s more recent works. The most common form of discrimination originates from Caucasians, it was a form that was fairly ubiquitous – this was the 1950s/60s. Another form of discrimination was perpetrated by fair-skinned African Americans toward those who have darker skin. Ray experienced it from his affluent in-laws who looked down on him, believing that Ray married above his station.

Murders, deaths, and murder attempts propelled the story but it was Ray who gave the novel a different complexion. He was an interesting and complex character who had the ordinary man’s desire to succeed in life despite having descended from a shady family. He loved his wife with no hesitations and was also a devoted father to his children. His calm exterior belied an interior that was filled with doubts. He constantly second-guessed himself, sometimes to devastating results. He was a practical man who possessed wit. He was also a philosopher whose insights made his community and its people come alive. His reflections on morality and the pretenses of the rich and powerful provided for interesting discourse. Freddie, on the other hand, was Ray’s antithesis but their interesting relationship formed the emotional backbone of the story. They were capably supported by an equally impressionable set of secondary characters comprised mostly of hustlers. However, they were never portrayed with mean spirits as their humane side was captured by the story.

Ray’s adventures and misadventures were juxtaposed to the portrait of a vibrant neighborhood. One of the novel’s finer facets was Whitehead’s vivid depiction of Harlem. More than Ray’s story, Harlem was the novel’s centerpiece. Whitehead did a laudable job of making the neighborhood come alive. He transformed the book into an atmospheric tale that paid homage to the place at a specific time. Whitehead’s descriptive writing steered the readers down every nook and cranny of Harlem. He captured the city’s beat and its rhythm. Historical contexts provided additional layers to the story. The story concluded as the Harlem riot of 1964 started to gather traction.

“Stay on the path and you’ll be safe, eat in peace, sleep in peace, breathe in peace; stray and beware. Work together and we can subvert their evil order. It was a map of the black nation inside the white world, part of the bigger thing but its own self, independent, with its own constitution. If we didn’t help one another we’d be lost out there.”

~ Colson Whitehead, Harlem Shuffle

The quality of Whitehead’s writing and prose was also among the novel’s accomplishments. The winner of two Pulitzer Prize, Whitehead’s ability as a storyteller never dimmed. Interestingly, the writing of Harlem Shuffle predated The Nickel Boys. Reading about Ray’s quandaries and insights was in itself a pleasure. However, his story did take time to soar. The earlier parts dragged and the connection between the three stories was tenuous. While they were connected by increasingly complex crimes and common characters, they came across as three separate novellas rather than a cohesive whole. The story kept meandering one often finds himself wondering where the story is going to lead to. Whitehead also had the propensity to introduce new characters without much context.

Parts-family saga, parts-historical fiction, parts-crime fiction, Harlem Shuffle is a multilayered and multifaceted story that captured in vivid detail the spirit of a place and time. Harlem, its people, and its beats all came alive under Whitehead’s descriptive and powerful prose. In this atmospheric tale, Whitehead explored a plethora of subjects such as social classes, disparities in wealth, the corruption of different institutions, and systemic racism. Beneath this layer of dark and heavy subjects is the evocative tale of an ordinary man who wants to establish a name for himself outside of his shady lineage. In Ray Carney, we read of a man brimming with ambition. He was a survivor with surprising tenacity. With Harlem Shuffle, Whitehead again delivered a commanding and compelling literary piece that further establishes his mettle as one of the contemporary literary heavyweights.

“It was one thing to believe the world was different and cruel, and another to wake to proof every day in the treacherous mountain slopes, the hungry gorges and ravines, the myriad jungle treachery. Only a lazy God could deliver the meanness of things so unadorned.”

~ Colson Whitehead, Harlem Shuffle
Ratings

69%

Characters (30%) – 22%
Plot (30%) – 
19%
Writing (25%) – 
18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
10%

At the start of 2021, I didn’t know that Colson Whitehead was releasing a new work later in the year. It was only while researching for the most anticipated releases in the second half of the year that I learned about the publication of Harlem Shuffle. I was apprehensive at first but gave in anyway considering Whitehead’s mettle; those two Pulitzer Prize-winning works did their magic even though I wasn’t fully impressed by either. I obtained a copy of the book and was hoping to read it towards the end of the year but the holiday rush and the cramming to complete reading challenges precluded me from reading the book. Instead, it became a part of my 2021 reading catch-up in early 2022. I do admire Whitehead’s resolve to capture and explore the Black American experience through his works, at least from the three novels he has written that I have read so far. Compared to his last two works, I found Harlem Shuffle more readable. However, the plot was thin and it tended to meander. It also dragged at parts, especially at the start. It was only towards the end that tension started building up. It was still a good read but it just fell short of my expectation.

Book Specs

Author: Colson Whitehead
Publisher: Doubleday
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 318
Genre: Historical, Crime Fiction

Synopsis

To his customers and neighbors on 125th Street, Carney is an upstanding salesman of reasonably priced furniture, making a decent life for himself and his family He and his wife, Elizabeth are expecting their second child, and if her parents on Striver’s Row don’t approve of him or their cramped apartment across from the subway tracks, it’s still home.

Few people know he descends from a line of uptown hoods and crooks, and that his facade of normalcy has more than a few cracks in it. Cracks that are getting bigger all the time.

Cash is tight, especially with all those installment-plan sofas, so if his cousin Freddie occasionally drops off the odd ring or necklace, Ray doesn’t ask where it comes from. He knows a discreet jeweler downtown who doesn’t ask questions either.

Then Freddie falls in with a crew who plan to rob the Hotel Theresa – the “Waldorf of Harlem” – and volunteers Ray’s services as the fence. The heist didn’t go as planned; they rarely do. Now Ray has a new clientele, one made up of shady cops, vicious local gangsters, two-bit pornographers, and other assorted Harlem lowlifes.

Thus begins the internal tussle between Ray the strive and Ray the crook. As Ray navigates this double life, he begins to see who actually pulls the strings in Harlem. Can Ray avoid getting killed, save his cousin, and grab his share of the big score, all while maintaining his reputation as the go-to source for all your quality home furniture needs?

Harlem Shuffle’s ingenious story plays out in a beautifully re-created New York City of the early 1960s. It’s a family saga masquerading as a crime novel, a hilarious morality play, a social novel about race and power, and ultimately, a love letter to Harlem.

But mostly, it’s a joy to read, another dazzling novel from the Pulitzer Prize – and National Book Award-winning Colson Whitehead.

About the Author

To learn more about two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Colson Whitehead, click here.