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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
The novel takes place during a few years in the 1960’s. It is about a man who seems to have escaped the “hood”, but is still loyal to those who remain under its thrall. Ray Carney has a successful, thriving, legitimate furniture
Perhaps, coming from a totally different culture and vantage point, I can never really walk in the shoes of a person of color, can never truly understand the lifestyles some choose. Carney believes he is honest, to a point. Is that like the expression “being only a little bit pregnant”? Can you really be honest if you are engaging in dishonest activities? Can you make your own rules? Did Carney understand he was breaking the rules, breaking the law and putting himself and his family in unnecessary danger or was his behavior simply acceptable in his community and his view of society?
Carney was successful. He had defeated those who would have defeated him, and yet, he still succumbed to the culture and violence of the neighborhood. He still looked away from even the most violent of criminal behavior, accepting it as part of his life, as necessary, and seemed to believe he was only on the sidelines, even as he planned his own form of vengeance against those that he believed slighted or betrayed him in some way. I simply could not understand either the motivation or the justification for his decisions. Danger, tragedy and violence became an acceptable part of his life, even as he continued to climb the ladder of success. His demeanor remained the same regardless of whether he was watching someone murdered or rewarded? Did he ever have true remorse for his own behavior? Did he ever wonder if his own actions were bringing him down? Did he understand that the community’s behavior was causing a lot of the problems it faced and not all was due to racist policing or white people? Was there any recognition of the community’s own responsibility for the actions of its citizens? I was unable to make a judgment.
I understood the frustration, fear and hopelessness of an environment that creates criminals, an environment in which the residents feel that crime is their only choice, though I do not understand why they choose crime instead of education to improve their lot in life and the lot of their children. I do not understand why the bullying of thugs was tolerated. It seemed as if lawlessness was acceptable and was expected to be ignored by the authorities. Gangs were making the rules instead of the law abiding citizens. An underground, sometimes violent system of policing themselves, of taking revenge that was heartless and cruel, seemed to govern them. Fear motivated them rather than self respect. Behind every act was the need for retribution, and rarely for forgiveness. Although they did not advocate doing harm, they did harm, thereby causing much of the problems and wounds to be self-inflicted, as they struck out against each other and the world.
I enjoyed the book, because of the writing talent of this author, but I struggled to find a cohesive thread and to understand the message that Colson intended to impart. I normally rave about this author’s books, but this one simply confounded me. It skipped around a lot making it hard to follow. The language seemed unnecessarily foul, at times, with insults hurled that would not be acceptable in today’s society. Referring to whites as apes would not have passed muster if the comment was reversed. I don’t think a white author would have gotten away with the liberties taken by Colson.
Often it felt repetitive and I struggled to find the humor that is supposedly in it. I found it sad. I felt like Carney was a Job like figure who kept getting himself into trouble as he attempted to be good, to follow the rules, but also to be kind to his cousin, and perhaps also, to his own selfish desires. Then I realized that he seemed to inflict the pain upon himself with foolish choices, even though they were made out of loyalty and good intentions. Like “Johnny Dandy”, the play no one truly understood, I don’t think I truly understood this book. It left me feeling a little hopeless about the future if all there is left for us is a choice of righteous anger and revolt or absolute submission to a system that is corrupting society.
lifelike, complex characters and a sometimes very gritty 1960s NYC come to life, this one was fun to read
Thanks to the author, Doubleday and NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an unbiased review.
Set in Harlem in the late 50s to early 60s we meet Carney the son of a minor thief who sets his sights higher. Graduating from Queens College with a business degree he fancies himself an entrepreneur, ambitious to make his way. Married, his wife, comes from a family
Whitehead successfully depicts New York City from downtown appliance store owners, 47th Street Diamond District dealers, Park Avenue bluebloods and Harlem hustlers. A cavalcade of crooks, thugs, crooked cops and barflies populate the action.
The writing is snappy and moves the tale quickly along in a most entertaining fashion:
"Pepper rode shotgun, but he was in the driver's seat"
"Entrepreneur...that's just a hustler who pays taxes"
"The cookies were stale and the fortunes discouraging"
"The Wednesday afternoon crowd looked like the bickering geezers who played chess in parks, trading pawns and grievances"
One can easily see this as a movie and its characters call out for a sequel. Bravo!
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.
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.
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 is trying to make an honest living, but somehow his
I had so much trouble getting interested in the story that I set it aside for a while. I’m glad I did finish it and find out what happened to Ray during all the shady dealings. It was also an enlightening look into life in Harlem during the 1960’s.
Many thanks to NetGalley and Doubleday Books for allowing me to read an advance copy and give my honest review.