I received an advance reader’s copy (ARC) of Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead. Since this version is just a proof and not the final version, I won’t quote directly and will keep my comments general.
This is my third novel by Whitehead, and it might be my favorite so far!
In Harlem Shuffle, Ray Carney is trying to make an honest living by selling furniture. However, with the ghost of his crooked father still seeming to haunt him, and his cousin’s dabbling in crime, playing it straight is proving difficult. Then, his cousin approaches him with a request to be the fence for some stolen goods. Carney refuses, but the men and the stolen goods show up anyway. Now, he’s stuck living a double life, and in doing so seeing how Harlem really runs. He only hopes he can navigate the tightrope safely.
I like the narrative style Whitehead is using here—it’s often conversational, without being overly casual. You are really immersed in what Carney, and the other characters, think and feel. Carney is a well-formed, complex character. He makes some decisions I don’t think I would have, but he also is so clearly trying to make the best choices he can for himself and his family that you can’t help but root for him anyway. The other characters, like Freddie and Pepper and Linus, are less likeable, but really intriguing too.
The setting of Harlem also feels like its own character, in a way. The 1950s world feels vivid and real, showing the differences in class and race in bright color and sound. Whitehead has done a fantastic job making this past New York City feel alive.
I liked the heist elements of the story, as well as the peek into the seedy underbelly of a city that can seem so full of riches. The examinations of race relations were great too, and timely. It’s sobering to see so concretely how we haven’t progressed far beyond that time. The riots and protests surrounding a Black boy killed by police in this book are indistinguishable from the riots and protests happening today. So not only could this book serve as a wake up call, it’s also pointing out that the fight needs to go on.
In the end, Harlem Shuffle is a pretty good time. It’s got plenty of serious moments, but also plenty of light moments. Carney’s struggle is sympathetic, yet complicated. The characters are good, and the setting fantastic. This book tackles difficult topics like racial injustice, economic disparity, and the morally gray areas people have to navigate to survive within an unfair system, and it tackles them with intelligence and nuance. It’s a book that merits discussion, and in general if you’re a fan of historical crime novels with a hint of family drama and a lot of personality, give this a read!
Overall rating: 8.5/10
Harlem Shuffle will be published on September 14th, 2021!