Harlem Shuffle

by Colson Whitehead

reviewed by Patrick Lohier

Colson Whitehead’s new novel, Harlem Shuffle, is the epic and captivating story of Ray Carney—furniture salesman, family man, entrepreneur on the rise and a vivid, walking, breathing, living exemplar of that classic archetype, the striver. Harlem Shuffle is a bravura performance, an immersive, laugh-out-loud, riveting adventure whose narrative energy is boosted by its memorable hero and a highly relevant backdrop of social injustice.

Set from 1959 to 1964, the novel comprises three episodes charting the precarious rise of Carney, a self-made man who habitually dips and sometimes dives into New York’s criminal underworld. In his “straight” life, Carney is the owner and proprietor of Carney’s Furniture, which serves the neighborhood’s Black clientele by offering new and “gently used” furniture and appliances along with a forgiving policy on lines of credit. Many of Carney’s clients struggle financially and fear shopping in white-owned stores where they might be denied service or otherwise humiliated. Carney is also a tender husband to his supportive pregnant wife Elizabeth and father to their young daughter Mary. Elizabeth works for a travel agency that specializes in planning Green Book-style itineraries that help Black travelers navigate the treacherous highways and byways of the segregated 1950s and 60s. Then there’s his beloved cousin Freddie, a lovable crook who’s as close to a brother as anyone in Carney’s life, and whose “common sense” tends “to fall out of a hole in his pocket—he never carried it long.”

From the novel’s opening sentence (“His cousin Freddie brought him on the heist one hot night in early June”), Freddie draws Carney into shady dealings—moving stolen goods through a loose network of fences and pawnbrokers. That network includes Carney’s erstwhile mentor, Harvey Moskowitz, his main contact in Manhattan’s Diamond District. Carney is wary of the dangers, but his secret side hustle helps him pay the bills. His worries are understandable; that world destroyed his parents and made for a harrowing childhood. For Carney is the son of an infamous, long-deceased local hoodlum named Big Mike Carney, from whom he’s inherited a healthy sense of cunning. The turbulence of Carney’s childhood fuels his desire for the security and stability of the “straight” world.

When a job goes sideways, Carney gets taken for a ride by the formidable Pepper, a cold, calculating enforcer who happens to have been one of Big Mike Carney’s old cronies. Pepper is as enigmatic and charismatic a crook as any in modern fiction. His tentative, slow-burning partnership with Carney is one of the novel’s most engaging touches. Key to Whitehead’s accomplishment is his virtuosic handling of the distinct lingo and arcane codes of Carney’s various worlds. Pepper, especially, is portrayed with hard-boiled economy and delicious wit:

No one answered Pepper’s knock the first two times. “Yes?”
“It’s Pepper. And Carney.”
“Don’t know any Pepper. No salt, neither. You get on.”
It wasn’t Miami Joe’s voice. This guy sounded like he’d read a book once.
Pepper ran his finger along the door frame, testing, then kicked it in.

Fittingly, Carney’s family live along Harlem’s Striver’s Row. The Carney family’s street “was one of the most beautiful stretches in Harlem, but it was a little island—all it took was a stroll around the corner to remind its residents that they were among, not above.” Among what, you might ask? Among the “urban blight” and creeping disintegration that Carney sees hopping through Harlem “from place to place like bedbugs.”

The killing of a Black teenager named James Powell by a white police officer named Thomas Gilligan sets off riots in the summer of 1964. The backdrop of a real historical event amps the novel up from the compulsively readable to the profoundly topical. Among the defter touches is Whitehead’s empathetic portrayal of disparate reactions within the Black community to protests and riots. Carney sympathizes with the rage and feels its source in his soul, but he’s also pained by the destruction of local businesses. The blight, the cramped Striver’s Row apartment, the protests and unrest on the streets and other pressures stir Carney’s anxieties and aspirations. On solitary nighttime walks he stalks real estate along Riverside Drive and dreams of moving his growing family to roomier, more luxurious digs. Among Harlem Shuffle’s many engaging pleasures is watching Carney bootstrap himself toward the urban American dream.

Carney has his own ideas about that ethical grey zone between the law-abiding and the criminal. As Whitehead writes, “Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked, in practice and ambition.” Because Carney grew up on the edges of Harlem’s turbulent underworld, he understands better than most the brutality and greed undergirding both the crooked and the straight worlds. In fact, he’s highly sensitized to all kinds of dualities: Black and white, rich and poor, uptown and downtown, straight and crooked. That hard-won knowledge helps him keep things in perspective. When considering his own neglected and hardscrabble childhood, he sets grievance aside with a survivor’s and striver’s assurance: “It had been hard. Others had it worse.”

Whitehead conveys the violence on the other side of civility especially well in the novel’s third act, when Carney goes toe-to-toe with the patriarch of a white political dynasty. While closing in on his dreams, a bit of overconfidence and an ironclad sense of loyalty put Carney and everyone he knows at risk. Pepper, sensing trouble, warns him, “Nothing solid in the city but the bedrock.” Despite Carney’s efforts to keep the crooked things from breaking him and the people he loves, the heat gets red hot, and a painful and dramatic reckoning crashes over him.

Even while using the law-abiding and criminal worlds as counterfoils, Whitehead shows how much they overlap in their shared desire for opportunity, security, safety, and a fair shake. His love for his characters and for the Harlem of Harlem Shuffle is clear. In this brilliant novel Whitehead has woven a rich tapestry with resonant characters and relationships, a playful, memorable lyricism, and a hero for the ages.

Published on December 7, 2021