The double Pulitzer winner turns to crime with a tale of 1960s New York gangsters, rendered with superbly observed, affectionate, page-turning brio
For more than 20 years Colson Whitehead has delivered novels notable for cultural satire, racial allegory, genre expansion and quirkiness: The Intuitionist, Sag Harbor, Zone One, The Underground Railroad (Pulitzer #1), The Nickel Boys (Pulitzer #2). In his eighth novel, Harlem Shuffle, Whitehead offers a literary crime saga that is as delicious as it is nutritious, a much lighter meal than his previous two novels, which emerge from the real-life atrocities of slavery and a brutal reform school in the American south. Whether in high literary form or entertaining, page-turner mode, the man is simply incapable of writing a bad book.
Set in the early 1960s, Harlem Shuffle is an extraordinary story about an ordinary man. Furniture salesman Ray Carney is a good guy gone wrong, like Walter White in Breaking Bad. He gets sucked into schemes and heists through his cousin Freddie, whom parents would call “a bad influence” (and Freddie himself has his own “bad influences”).
The ordinary-Joe-furniture-salesman aspect of Carney’s life gets restated a touch too much in the novel, as do his sleepless nights spent in worry, though, understandably, the novel’s premise hangs on his double life. The pleasure of the plot lies in discovering what kind of trouble an ordinary man can get into, and how or whether he’ll get out. Crime novels risk becoming formulaic, like action movies. While there aren’t any car chases or Tarantino-style fight scenes in Harlem Shuffle, Whitehead capably fulfils the genre’s expectations while gently parodying them. A hilarious fight scene, for example: “It would not be accurate to say that the two men fought or wrestled. More like they gripped each other’s upper arms and shook … It was a low-key battle, a mutual trembling.”
The novel is structured in three instalments, covering a period from 1959 to 1964, each climactically peaking with criminal activity. Act 1 shows how easily a man can step downward into crime. Act 2 considers Carney’s upward criminal climb. We could call this the illusion of advancement; we all get suckered into it. “The mistake was to believe he’d become someone else.” Act 3 considers whether a man should step up to help others. What’s our responsibility to the greater social good? The three parts present our options: descent, personal advancement, social progress. Or Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso.
The three acts could make satisfying novellas on their own, but they’re better together. The novel gains force through accumulation and acceleration – brake and gas, gas and brake, until we are far from where we started. In one or two sentences at the end of a chapter, Whitehead can change the book’s whole trajectory.
Set 60 years ago, the novel nonetheless has a number of parallels to our time. There’s a delight in taking down powerful people who believed themselves invulnerable to consequences. There’s the expansion of empire and wealth. Some people aspire to own houses, while others own entire buildings. There’s the chillingly familiar racial unrest, down to a shooting that incites protests. In the novel, two leaflets circulate as potential paths to an equitable and just society. The first gives instructions on how to build a bomb. The wording on the second nudges us toward patient cooperation: “COOL IT BABY.” Thankfully, Whitehead is never sermonising or sentimental.
It may be inevitable that we read the novel as an allegory for our time, but a book’s merits ought not to be determined by its relevance to our present. Rather, we can extend ourselves in its direction, toward the 60s, toward Carney’s extreme moral struggles. Whitehead makes it easy for us to live in that period and place, so well rendered is his Harlem. Harlem Shuffle is yet another novel that New Yorkers are going to lovingly claim.
If Harlem Shuffle is your introduction to Whitehead, you’ll discover a writer with range. Without being pretentious or phony, he can use a verb like bivouac then convincingly switch registers and write: “That was a whole nother story.” His humour can arise from absurdity (crooks get paid in cash and discounted furniture), from parody (a wealthy man snobbishly describes the New York subway as “a filthy cage for filthy people”), even from gangster nicknames. Meet Yea Big, Pepper, Miami Joe, Chet the Vet (who got his name because he went to vet school – for a month). Whitehead counterbalances humour with insight.
And finally, you’ll discover a tenderness beneath the swagger. Whitehead draws his roster of secondary characters, especially the ones that could easily become stock figures such as crime bosses and petty thieves, with as much care as the primary ones. His portraits are never mean-spirited; instead, Whitehead renders the humanity of hustlers. He gets their sweetness down. Some of them have clean aspirations of farm life or higher education. He makes us love them the way their mamas must. Take, for example, Pepper, an enforcer who would be played perfectly by Samuel L Jackson. He asks our humble furniture salesman, Carney: “What made you want to sell couches?” Carney replies: “I’m an entrepreneur.” “‘Entrepreneur?’ Pepper said the last part like manure. ‘That’s just a hustler who pays taxes.’”
Ian Williams is the author of Reproduction (Dialogue) and the forthcoming essays Disorientation: Being Black in the World. Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead is published by Fleet (£16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.