So perhaps it was only a matter of time before he drove down 125th Street in his native New York City to deliver a wry crime novel. If the ghost of Chester Himes hovers over these pages — think “Colson Comes to Harlem” — there’s nothing derivative about Whitehead’s storytelling. As usual, when he moves into a new genre, he keeps the bones but does his own decorating.
“Harlem Shuffle” takes place in the late 1950s and early ’60s when the legendary African American neighborhood is teetering between commercial vibrancy and criminal dynasties. That tension is contained in the life of the novel’s affable hero, Ray Carney. His dad was a renowned thug around these parts — till he was finally, inevitably, shot down by the police.
Carney has always felt determined to follow a different path than his dad. He’s the first person in his family to go to college. “Living taught you that you didn’t have to live the way you’d been taught to live,” he thinks. “You came from one place but more important was where you decided to go.” Now he’s the proud owner of Carney’s Furniture, a purveyor of fine new and gently used pieces for the home. That his business was founded on $30,000 cash discovered in the spare-tire well of his father’s truck is not a moral complication that troubles him much.
“Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked,” Colson writes. “An outside observer might get the idea that Carney trafficked quite frequently in stolen goods, but that’s not how he saw it.” Although some of the TVs, radios and small appliances in his showroom have questionable provenance, Carney believes he’s performing a community service. “He was a wall between the criminal world and the straight world, necessary, bearing the load.”
“Harlem Shuffle” is largely the story of piling up more and more weight against that precarious wall that Carney imagines separates him from the city’s grifters and thieves. “Compared to your typical, flashy uptown crook, Carney looked like, well, a furniture salesman,” and he puts a lot of faith in that appearance. We get glimpses of his happy home life and his successful wife, who works for a Black travel agency. And we see him working hard to enhance his business with furniture lines normally reserved for White stores.
Trouble is, Carney can’t say no to his cousin Freddie, who has not chosen the path of legal, upstanding entrepreneurship. As adolescents, he and Freddie developed their own truant version of Laurel and Hardy. Again and again, “Freddie sweet-talks him into an ill-advised scheme and the mismatched duo tries to outrun the consequences. Here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.”
That was all fun and games when they were kids stealing candy or daring each other to jump into the Hudson River. But as the novel opens, Freddie wants Carney to fence jewelry he hopes to steal from the Hotel Theresa, “headquarters of the Negro world.” Suddenly, Carney and his cousin aren’t playing out a vaudeville comedy skit anymore.
Except they kind of are.
There’s nothing zany about “Harlem Shuffle,” but Whitehead has cast this novel with toughs like Chet the Vet, who flashes gold canines, and Miami Joe, who wears a high-waisted purple suit. Although they’re not harmless figures, they’re definitely comic. One particularly accommodating gangster lets delinquent customers pick which appendage they’d like broken. “No one had heard of such a marketing gimmick before,” Whitehead notes, “this a la carte maiming.” And though people die in “Harlem Shuffle,” they tend to do it cozily offstage, far from the horrific mayhem of “The Underground Railroad” or the implicit sadism of “The Nickel Boys.” Indeed, for all its allusions to murder and drugs, this is Harlem’s gangster culture glazed with more humor than blood.
In a sense, we’re kept within the fertile biosphere of Carney’s cheery optimism, at least for a while. But “Harlem Shuffle” is laced with intimations that classism and racism are conspiring to corrupt the city. Carney’s own in-laws look down on him as a mere “rug-peddler,” and there’s a clear hierarchy of color among the Black residents. Even as the neighborhood struggles against systemic abuses, the center of “Harlem Shuffle” focuses on a vendetta between Carney and a crooked Black banker. The scheme that Carney engineers to wreak his revenge is entertaining, but it’s also a tragic example of how much energy is misdirected on internecine battles that are only furthering the work of a larger racist society. “All over the city there were people like them, a whole mean army of schemers and nocturnal masterminds working their rackets,” Whitehead writes. “Thousands and thousands toiling and plotting in their apartments and SROs and twenty-four-hour greasy spoons, waiting for the day when they will bring their plans into the daylight.”
That incantatory vision of pervasive criminality eventually gives way to the novel’s third and most exciting section, set in 1964, around the real-life riot sparked when a White police officer kills an African American teenager. “Kid got shot? Heat wave like that?” a crooked cop says. “That ain’t a powder keg — it’s the munitions factory.”
Don’t be surprised: What starts as a shuffle ends in a run.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Colson Whitehead
Doubleday. 336 pp. $28.95