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Harlem Shuffle

Review

Harlem Shuffle

For 18 months, the world has found itself under the thumb of a debilitating pandemic that has changed our daily routines and lives in ways we do not understand and reluctantly accept. But there have been some bright spots along the way. The solitude and time at home have allowed for many accomplishments.

By his own admission, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead found the time during lockdown to return to writing HARLEM SHUFFLE, a crime novel set in New York City during the 1950s and ’60s. The long-awaited finished product is now in stores and marks a substantial stylistic change from his previous two novels, THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD and THE NICKEL BOYS.

"HARLEM SHUFFLE is a personal novel. Colson Whitehead is a New Yorker, and his parents and family lived in the Harlem recreated on these pages.... [a] delightful and amazing book..."

Reading those books was a heart-wrenching and difficult experience as they focused on the institutional racism and oppression toward Black Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries. There was no subtlety in the worlds portrayed by Whitehead; the story was presented with blaring trumpets and blazing guns. HARLEM SHUFFLE is far more discreet as the New York racism of the post-Korean War era is illustrated more through subtle comments, gestures and attitudes that seemingly recognize that the United States and the rest of the world are changing, but not without some pushback from those in authority.

Here, readers are introduced to Ray Carney, a young and aggressive entrepreneur seeking to establish himself as a successful furniture store operator in Harlem. He has a wife and daughter, and another child is on the way. To marry Elizabeth, he was forced to overcome opposition from her family because he was not deemed to be of sufficient social stature to be her husband. Bluntly put, he was too black for her.

Ray tries to overcome the early obstacles that life placed in his younger days. Although abandoned by his criminal father as a child, Ray does have some mementos from him, including a truck that he drove and a few valuable contacts with criminal associates of his. Except for occasional forays, he has avoided the criminal world and is only “slightly bent” when it comes to illegal activity. While he runs an honest business in Harlem, Ray sometimes accepts merchandise of questionable status and even undertakes studying the art of evaluating and fencing stolen jewelry. He is philosophical of his status. As one associate observes, “If being a crook were a crime, we’d all be in jail.”

When Ray strays too close to the boundary of more egregious criminal behavior, his life changes. He becomes the victim of the white criminal justice system, and it begins to impact the success of his legitimate business. When his membership in an exclusive Harlem organization is denied for reasons he does not quite understand, he seeks revenge. Ray Carney is a wonderfully sympathetic character. We want him to succeed, and we worry that his life, business and family could be destroyed by white New York society.

HARLEM SHUFFLE is a personal novel. Colson Whitehead is a New Yorker, and his parents and family lived in the Harlem recreated on these pages. As I prepared this review, the New York Times published an interview with the author that sums up his delightful and amazing book perfectly: “I’m describing a Harlem that’s in decline in the ’50s and ’60s. And now it’s gentrified and revitalized. And that’s the city. It’s always being laid low. By 9/11, by COVID, and we bounce back.” Come back quickly, New York. America needs you.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on September 16, 2021

Harlem Shuffle
by Colson Whitehead

  • Publication Date: September 14, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • ISBN-10: 0385545134
  • ISBN-13: 9780385545136