In this book review, we’ll go through Colson Whitehead’s new novel Harlem Shuffle.
The plot revolves around Ray Carney, a furniture seller struggling to make ends meet. Carney, along with his eccentric cousin Freddie deals in stolen jewellery as a side gig. Carney hopes that his involvement in a raid in Hotel Theresa by a group of bandits will not lead to his own death. And although Carney is guilty of criminal misdeeds, he is a good-natured man because he is a family man.
His wife, Elizabeth is currently pregnant with his second child. And his double life could be unravelled if Carney is able to survive.
A Thoughtful Journey Into The Minds of Criminals and The American Consciousness
At its core, Harlem Shuffle is yet another example of the success of Whitehead as a Pulitzer-winning, literary giant of the modern era. His previous Pulitzer-winning novel, The Underground Railroad confronts the remnants of slavery. Whereas, The Nickel Boys tackles racism in the Jim Crow justice system. But when it comes to Whitehead’s latest offering, Harlem Shuffle successfully brings to life another American era in the form of 1960s Harlem.
Moreover, Whitehead’s mixed-genre story about family saga and crime is a subtle move away from the detective story genre of his 1999 novel The Intuitionist. And unlike his past novel, Harlem Shuffle is all about a male protagonist who has plenty of problems to contend with.
Coming back to Harlem Shuffle. While Carney has a heritage full of criminals and lawbreakers, he manages to get married into an affluent family. However, Elizabeth’s parents do not hide their contempt for the union whatsoever. Elizabeth’s father, Leland, in particular, does not like nor respect Carney’s furniture company.
An elitist, Carney’s father-in-law condemns him as a common “rug peddler” so far removed from the luxurious world that Elizabeth grew up in that he often mocks the Carney marital home — a dingy apartment with two windows, one facing an air shaft and the other toward a train track.
Whitehead is indeed a pro when it comes to striking a motif in his Harlem that represents a cultural mecca for intellect, art, and business. Striver’s Row, a highly regarded part of Harlem and the place where Elizabeth grew up, places the utmost importance on a person’s profession, prestigious education, and even (light) skin tone. And Carney feels that he can’t measure up to all of those lofty standards.
For instance, Elizabeth’s father is a very wealthy and successful accountant while Carney’s father is the very opposite of success. Whitehead expertly weaves the dichotomy between corruption and respectability to create both internal and external conflict in his novel. Carney is a professional and wants to provide security and comfort for his family. But he is convinced that he can only do so by committing a crime that will make his life more difficult as he is now being pursued by both cops and gangsters.
As the other central piece of the story, Hotel Theresa is a glorious building that has contributed much to Black history — not that Harlem’s underbelly cares one bit.
Newspaper reports from that time describe the amazing people who visited Hotel Theresa including Joe Louis, Cab Calloway, and Dinah Washington as well as other well-known, wealthy individuals from the Black community. Whitehead continues this dichotomy of corruption and respectability by telling the reader that the Hotel Theresa is not only the “headquarters” for the Negro world, but pimps, working girls, and other people also live in the stunning, terra-cotta-white structure alongside the affluent.
This community of hoodlums is home to Freddie and his crew who are responsible for the Hotel Theresa Heist. Freddie is known for pulling his cousin Carney into his games and chaotic lifestyle. And Carney has difficulty refusing as he might feel indebted to Millie, his mother who took care of Carney as a child. Carney lost his mom at nine years old and his father wasn’t around either. Carney recalled heatless winters and rat bites when his father returned to his life. Carney, though an adult, still feels shame for his humble upbringing.
As usual, Whitehead effortlessly weaves a complicated tapestry of Harlem’s racial issues. Whether it’s the peaceful protests and rallies for the powerless or the portrayal of business owners protecting their assets against rioters, everything is seamless and hauntingly cemented in reality. He shows Rusty, Carney’s employee, and their baseball bats for four nights trying to protect their showroom from anyone attempting to break through the glass. He also shows Black business owners holding signs that say “NEGRO OWNED & OPERATED” while protesters chant, “We want Malcolm X!” — in tandem creating a realistic scenario that you would not find out of place in 1960s America.