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 Strivers Row dont approve of him or their cramped apartment across from the subway tracks, its still home. Few people know he descends from a line of uptown hoods and crooks, and that his façade 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 doesnt ask where it comes from. He knows a discreet jeweler downtown who doesnt ask questions, either. Then Freddie falls in with a crew who plan to rob the Hotel Theresathe Waldorf of Harlemand volunteers Rays services as the fence. The heist doesnt 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 striver 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 Shuffles ingenious story plays out in a beautifully recreated New York City of the early 1960s. Its 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, its a joy to read, another dazzling novel from the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning Colson Whitehead.… (more)
Harlem Shuffle chronicles about a half dozen years of Ray’s tale, along with a substantial amount of the backstory on his upbringing for context. Split into three connected parts starting in 1959, the novel provides a chronological series of snapshots that add up to a compelling portrait of the main character. That is an important point to make because while the book is nominally billed as a crime story, the actual capers described are the least interesting thing about it. In fact, where Colson Whitehead’s prose really shines is in the meticulous way he recreates a sense of the time and the place during an era when things were changing so rapidly. This is impressive historical fiction that builds a world filled racial tension, shady business dealings, corrupt police, rampant drug use, as well as loyal friends, hard-working folks trying to climb the ladder, and a lot of people with solid family values.
I did enjoy this book, but it seems like one that I should have loved. The story itself starts off very slowly and only builds to a page-turning crescendo right near the end, perhaps due to the careful way in which the author chose to create Ray’s character. However, that focus came at the expense of developing the rest of the supporting cast, most of whom were neither fully formed nor particularly engaging (Ray’s crime associate Pepper being a notable exception). Also, it is difficult not to compare this novel to James McBride’s Deacon King Kong, which covers similar ground in terms of the social issues portrayed but does so in a far more joyful and entertaining fashion. So, Harlem Shuffle is a novel that I can easily recommend for what it does best, but it is one that falls a little short of the Whitehead’s own considerable catalog of past work.
I think, going in, I expected this to be essentially a literary heist novel, but that turned out to not really be accurate. Indeed, the exact plot details of the criminal enterprises Carney finds himself drawn into (or, in one notable case, instigating) almost feel incidental. The novel is much more about Carney himself, about the ways in which he lives his life, about this particular time and place, and implicitly (and rather depressingly) about the more-things-change-the-more-they-stay-the-same reflections of our own time in Carney's when it comes to the dynamics of race and class, anger and power.
And it does all of this well and interestingly, with a light but effective touch. I didn't find it nearly as powerful as The Underground Railroad or quite as fascinating as Zone One, those being the two Whitehead novels I'd read previously, but it's good stuff nevertheless, and I continue to be impressed with not just Whitehead's writing, but his range.
The book is structured in three parts: 1959, 1961, and 1964. Each of these has pivotal events in Carney's life, and - the final third in particular - New York City. The city Whitehead paints is detailed and rich, and we get to know the Black neighborhoods and question whether Carney's crime is really any worse than what other, more "upstanding" citizens are perpetrating at the same time. A great book club book and one that would reward rereading because when you already know the plot and what will happen to the characters, you can then concentrate on the details, the language, and the other elements that make one of Whitehead's stories so special.
"Harlem Shuffle" is, I suppose, historical fiction, and it's easy to see a the author put in time doing research. At the same time, the novel never feels overly constricted by either its temporal or geographical setting. Whitehead is still writing to tell a story, and I've got little doubt that he's one of our best. But what I might have enjoyed most is the parts of the novel's Harlem setting that the passage of time has more or less erased. Carney's looked down on by his in-laws, certified blue-chip members of the "talented tenth," the kind of black professionals who were once thought to be able to make it in America even, sometimes even by those who considered most black people utterly irredeemable. We hear about a set of clubs, businesses, subtle social differentiations that held real weight in small, tightly knit neighborhoods of black up-and-comers. Much of these institutions and perspectives were more or less washed away by the success of the Civil Rights movement and the racial integration that followed, however limited it might have been, in much the same way that advances in technology decimated the commercial district where you could always take your radio to get it fixed. Meanwhile, Carney watches his father's "associates" fade into history as the drug trade moves in. There are parts of "Harlem Shuffle" that don't fit squarely with the dominant narrative of the United States in the sixties, and it's one of the things that makes it an exceptionally interesting book. I found "Harlem Shuffle" to be compulsively readable, if for no other reason that Colson Whitehead seems to depict Mike Carney's character and his particular social coordinates with such exactness and with such apparent ease. Enjoyable and highly recommendable.
The writing is clever, with memorable lines.
“He measured his prison time in terms not of years lost but of scores missed.”
“The rug was freshly vacuumed, which suited the captives, who had their faces in it.”
“Certainly she hadn’t quit show business, waitressing being a line of work where you had to play to even the cheapest of seats.”
“The cookies were stale and the fortunes discouraging.”
Harlem in the 1960s is vividly recreated, filled with colorful and unforgettable inhabitants.
The timeline ranges from 1959 to 1964, showing life in Harlem from Carney’s hard childhood, his in-laws from Striver’s Row, to the riots and the razing of neighborhoods to build the World Trade Center.
So, we have a hugely entertaining story of a heist, a revenge plot, sharp writing, vivid characters–but wait! There’s more!
No New Frontier stretched before him, endless and bountiful–that was for white folks…
from Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
Because the novel is also a history of class and race. Carney wants to add a cutting-edge furniture line to his story, the first black business owner to work with the company. During the meeting in Carney’s store, the police walk in and the rep scurries out. Business owners lost everything in the riot, because insurance companies wouldn’t write policies for Negro shopkeepers. The riots were blamed on activists from CORE.
I guiltily admit that I have not read Colson Whitehead since his debut novel The Intuitionist. I know. How could I have not read his Pulitzer Prize winning books? When an email came from the publisher with a widget to read Harlem Shuffle, I quickly responded. And am so glad I did.
I received a free egalley from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.
NYC is changing and everyone has to keep up or fall behind - Ray Carney recognizes the signs and knows he has to adapt. He is a smart man with great powers of reason. He hides a lot from his family and some from himself until he understands where he stands and how he got there. Where he goes next seems as if it had been charted without his input. Circumstances drag him into and along paths crossed by mini and major gangsters, corrupt cops, protection muscle, egotistical whites and blacks.
The writing is smooth, there is a rhythm, a cadence which matches the story and while I didn’t rip through the pages I enjoyed turning each one. Thank you NEtGalley and Doubleday for a copy.
Whatever anyone else thinks of Whitehead or his material, it is a given that whatever he writes will draw the reader in all the way to the end. And the way he makes the characters come alive is astounding. It's
I requested and received a free temporary ebook copy from Doubleday Books, Doubleday via NetGalley. Thank you!
Ray Carney is a slightly bent but not crooked furniture salesman who is trying to make a good life for his family however his Cousin Freddie has a way of inviting mayhem into his life.
The novel is
I thoroughly enjoyed the historical aspects of the novel which had me Googling to find out more.
The characters, as is usual for Whitehead, are distinctive and entertaining.
Whitehead's prose is topnotch and the novel itself has so many terrific quotes you'll be taking the time to write them down.
Read this one slowly and savour it's quality.
Thank you to NetGalley, the author and publisher for an Advanced Copy of this splendid novel.
Thanks to the author, Doubleday and NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an unbiased review.
With “The Underground Railroad” and “The Nickel Boys” Colson Whitehead has catapulted himself at the top of the list of contemporary writers. Just as in his former works, “Harlem Shuffle” brilliantly captures the mood and the atmosphere of the time it is set in. It only takes a couple of pages to get a feeling of 125th street of the time and first and foremost, how people experienced the riots after the shooting of an unarmed black boy by a policeman. Thus, even though the plot is set sixty years in the past, he succeeds in connecting it to present day events and issues.
“The way he saw it, living taught you that you didn’t have to live the way you’d been taught to live- You came from one place but more important was where you decided to go.”
Ray has decided for a decent life with his furniture store, he keeps to himself and his family and does not want to get involved too much in any criminal doings. He has grown up with broken glass on the playground, killings where just a side note of everyday life. Yet, Freddie is his cousin and blood ultimately is thicker than water. They have grown up like brothers and the bond cannot easily be cut even though this time, it means serious consequences.
The novel develops slowly but it is those seemingly unrelated marginalia that provide the depth of the story and create the atmosphere on which the story lives. A great novel vividly written and definitely worth reading, however, I am not as enthusiastic as I was after reading his former novels.
Ray Carney's observations about life in the turbulent 60's, the cast of life long criminals and crooked cops, about playing it safe or enacting revenge--makes for entertaining reading with glimpses of a life worth rooting for. The character descriptions alone are treasures. Here's one of my favorite characters, Pepper:
"He was burly and long-limbed, stooping to hide his true size. Something off about him made you look twice, but his dark gaze made you turn before you could figure it out. He shouldn’t be there, but was. A mountain man who’d taken a wrong turn and stayed in the city, or a blown-in weed that’d found purchase in a sidewalk crack: a foreign body that had adapted to its new home."
There is talk of Whitehead continuing with The characters of this great novel; we can only hope.
Carney took the previous tenants’ busted schemes and failed dreams as a kind of fertilizer that helped his own ambitions prosper, the same way a fallen oak in its decomposition nourishes the acorn.
Freddie’s common sense tended to fall out of a hole in his pocket—he never carried it long.
Everyone had secret corners and alleys that no one else saw—what mattered were your major streets and boulevards, the stuff that showed up on other people’s maps of you.
He was burly and long-limbed, stooping to hide his true size. Something off about him made you look twice, but his dark gaze made you turn before you could figure it out. He shouldn’t be there, but was. A mountain man who’d taken a wrong turn and stayed in the city, or a blown-in weed that’d found purchase in a sidewalk crack: a foreign body that had adapted to its new home.
It was one thing to believe the world was indifferent 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.
The diner was a shabby operation, the cracks in the floor caulked by grime, the windows cloudy.
It was a respite from the normal world and its demands, a hollow of private enterprise carved out of lost hours...Learned gentlemen aside, Carney knew crime’s hours when he saw them—dorvay was crooked heaven, when the straight world slept and the bent got to work.
He reminded Carney of the mouthy deputy in a Western, cocksure and cracking jokes, and liable to get offed before the final reel.
The children were spread-eagled, with their faces nestled into the crooks of their arms. All the Carneys slept like that, as if still shrinking from some primeval ugliness.
But then, Big Mike had tended his crop of grudges like a farmer, inspecting the rows, taking care they got enough water and fertilizer so that they grew big and healthy.
He took up a pipe and on warm nights perched on the fire escape overlooking Forty-Eighth, puffing, the iron scaffold a periscope that allowed a view of the sleepy-churning Hudson while the saxophone of Ornette Coleman barked and bleated on the hi-fi, wringing the city’s death rattle from its harrowed throat.
Gnaw on a disappointment long enough and it will lose all flavor.
He graduated from high school and college. Later on, when he went to sell his father’s truck he found $30,000 hidden in a wheel. He decided to use the money and buy a furniture store so he could support his family and live a respectable life.
He did quite well selling new and used furniture as well as other items, such as jewelry. Those he sold to other buyers.. His prices were fair and he usually paid a fair price for used furniture. Sometimes, however, he turned a blind eye to the source of the merchandise he bought.
He and his wife had a child and a second was on the way. His father-in-law was a respected accountant. He wanted to be respected. They wanted a larger apartment in a better neighborhood and was working towards that goal.
Enter his cousin, Freddie The two boys had been close since childhood but Freddie preferred the life of getting money in other-than-legal ways, always as a lower level team member. He would then get Ray to be the middle man on the sale of his takings..
HARLEM SHUFFLE is the story of Ray’s life in Harlem during three time periods: 1959, 1961,and 1964. It follows Ray’s actions and decisions about what he should do to achieve his goals, what he does, and the pros and cons of his decisions.
The book is an excellent story by two time Pulitzer Prize winning Colson Whitehead. The characters are realistic and understandable. Life is depicted as it was in that place at that time. And, while entertaining and enlightening, it provides much to think about.
Seneca Village was a thriving 19th Century neighborhood for black residents of New York City in the nineteenth century. It was so desirable that the white city government took it over, drove out the residents and businesses, and turned it into what is now known as Central Park.
Though this has an Edward G. Robinson/Jimmy Cagney-esque crime caper feel, if you are looking for a traditional mystery thriller I expect you will be disappointed. If you are looking for historical fiction it works. Like most fiction that I like this book is not really about the central events, they provide a structure for Whitehead to write about bigger issues, in this case about rising as a black man at a particular time in America (and especially in NYC.) By Any Means Necessary made sense in retrospect, it mattered historically, but that was not the only discussion being had in Harlem, and in fact a tiny subsection of Harlem's residents actively engaged in the civil rights movement. Most people were ducking their heads trying to just get by. Things were bad enough without poking the bear. The work of getting anything was punishing (to body, mind, soul and conscience) for people in Harlem, and it was they who absorbed the repercussions of the fight against oppression. This tells their story, the people who had something to hold onto and a suspicion that battering down barriers would not necessarily inure to the benefit of those they loved. It tells the story of people who rose in their milieu, and knew they would never be on an even playing field that would allow them to take care of the people that mattered to them if they had to do in a place where everything was played by white men's rules. Whitehead provides such a dazzling, smart, strong and relatable character in Carney that I had no problem at all walking in his shoes and seeing the world through his lens. It was remarkable. I love this character!
Carney carries this book without a hitch and I wanted to spend as much time with him and the people he loves as possible. For that reason I do think that things went in too many directions and it was hard to stay immersed. We kept getting wrapped up in Carney's capers. They were entertaining, and I wanted to be a part of them, but for me there were too many of them and they were too far removed from one another and from Carney's family - almost like connected short stories. Like I said, still great, it is equal parts funny, touching, and violent, which is hard to argue with, and it is (as Whitehead always is) incredibly smart. Also informative. I found out I have been mispronouncing the name of the Van Wyck expressway for as long as I have been pronouncing the name of the Van Wyck. Finally, the last sentence was perfect -- everything I believe in my heart about people prettifying this city at the expense of everything that actually matters about this city was right there.