USA TODAY International Edition
Whitehead shuffles his focus to noir in ‘ Harlem’
Colson Whitehead has had an unrivaled recent run as an author. His 2016 novel, “The Underground Railroad,” won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, and 2019’ s “The Nickel Boys” won a Pulitzer as well. Merging stark takes on slavery and Jim Crow with a knack for plot twists, Whitehead has become the standard- bearer for racial reckoning in American fiction.
That’s a major feat. But it also can be a pigeonhole for a writer who’ has built his work around everything from zombies to elevators to postage stamps. His latest, “Harlem Shuffle” ( Doubleday, 336 pp., eeeE), is something of a retreat from the seriousness of his recent work. Set in the early 1960s, it’s an homage to the era’s hardboiled crime writers such as Chester Himes, Donald Westlake and Elmore Leonard. Whitehead plainly has had a good time conjuring up the two- fisted lines that punctuate the story: “He had pushed his luck and now luck’s opposite pushed back,” or “If being a crook were a crime, we’d all be in jail.”
Still, “Shuffle” aspires to be more than just a genre exercise. Its hero, Ray Carney, is a semi- successful Harlem furniture salesman. To get ahead, he secretly works a few illicit side hustles, including fencing jewelry for his cousin Freddie. Compared with others in Harlem, he figures he “was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked.” He’s certainly more upstanding, he’s sure, than his late criminal father, who left behind a stash of money that allowed Carney to launch his business.
But Carney is soon roped into riskier schemes that put his and others’ lives at risk. That experience gives him a window into the corruption within New York’s Black and white neighborhoods, and how a Black businessman like himself often is shortchanged by it. It also tests his status as only slightly bent. He spends his days expanding the furniture business and nights serving as either Freddie’s accomplice or savior. Peace of mind – let alone sleep – is in short supply, and his lifestyle threatens to become unsustainable. “More crooked in one direction and more legit in the other – careful you don’t split yourself in half,” Whitehead writes.
Whitehead cannily parallels Carney’s fracture with his neighborhood’s. The latter sections of the book turn on a 1964 Harlem riot provoked by a white police officer killing a Black teenager. Carney tries to distance himself from the shooting’s implications – he’s striving to land an account with a firm that has avoided Black clients. But his own actions thrust him closer to the tensions than he’ll readily acknowledge.
Whitehead, as ever, has a photographic eye for the particulars of the city and its moment in time. We know every inch of his furniture showroom, as well as his troubled psyche. At times, though, it feels as overburdened by its balancing act as Carney does. “Shuffle” often lacks the efficiency of his noir inspirations – the descriptions can be dense, the plotting convoluted.
But the story flies when it focuses on Carney’s split personality. He’s both an engrossing character and a compelling allegory for the ways a city – and country – are divided yet interlaced, both “separate and connected by tracks.”