Colson Whitehead Plays It Safe

‘Harlem Shuffle,’ a light crime novel by a literary giant

Harlem Shuffle is the seventh novel by Colson Whitehead, and his last two won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Only three other novelists—Booth Tarkington, William Faulkner, and John Updike—have won two, and Whitehead did it with two novels in a row, The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys. No one has ever won three—and by extension, not three in a row—but that’s the kind of worldly potential that greets Harlem Shuffle as it comes out this month. Whitehead’s new novel has many expectations foisted upon it that have nothing to do with the more fundamental accomplishment of engaging and enlightening readers.

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Whitehead undercuts these expectations by writing a crime novel that only secondarily concerns itself with literary heights and sticks more closely to the shore of genre. His main character, Ray Carney, is a Black New York City furniture store owner in the 1950-60s who wants more from life. He’s married to a patient if oblivious woman from a respected Harlem family. They have a young child with another on the way, and their store on 125th Street struggles to pay the bills but offers some promise for the family’s future.

Harlem Shuffle

Carney lost his mother when he was nine, and his small-time crook father died at the hands of the police during Carney’s young adulthood. Despite these challenges, Carney wills himself through college, and he seeks to become one of the respected people of the local Black business community—live in the right neighborhoods, frequent elite clubs, take his piece of the American dream.

What I want to write next is that Carney is drawn into the life of crime of his late father by some primeval force inside him that he must struggle against to maintain his loving relationship with his wife and family. Instead, his ne’er-do-well cousin Freddie hooks Carney in to serve as the fence for a heist of the Hotel Theresa, the Harlem domicile of the stars. The crime gang includes a local-famous ringleader, a cold-hearted man to serve as muscle, and a safecracker who’s been in and out of jail. Why on earth does Carney agree? Is it the money? Okay, but how much he expects to profit—or even what his cut is—remains undiscussed amongst him and the gang. His close relationship with Freddie? Maybe, but who risks their life and the lives of the people they love merely to go along with a cajoling cousin? His ambition in the business community, which might require him to get his hands dirty? That’s not clear to him at the outset.

One reason Carney might participate in this caper is because, on some level, he needs it, some deep scar he inherited from his father, but that drive isn’t on the page. In this way, Whitehead has set us up for a story that, by and large, refuses to push Carney anywhere that might deepen our commitment to him. His arc remains safely in comfortable, uncomplicated waters.

That’s not to say the book doesn’t include some feats of writerly daring. Whitehead skillfully reveals the details of the Hotel Theresa heist, and he expertly uses the submarine as an extended metaphor to render Freddie’s here-and-gone nature. Moreover, Whitehead loads the novel with interesting characters portrayed with quick, deft brushstrokes, such as Miami Joe:

“To hear Miami Joe expound on a subject—whether it was food, the treachery of females, or the simple eloquence of violence—was to see the world shorn of its civilized ruses. The only thing he dressed up nicely was himself; all else remained as naked and uncomplicated as God had created it.”

The rewards of Whitehead’s characterizations in The Underground Railroad and his other novels are also resplendent in Harlem Shuffle, and it’s enough to keep the pages turning. The film industry will love to get their hands on this title.

Also, Harlem Shuffle remains true to Whitehead’s commitment to deal with the complicated issues surrounding race in America. Central to Carney’s obsessions is the Dumas Club, which serves as a kind of men’s club for upper crust local Black businessmen, politicians, and judges. As the tale begins, Carney is frustrated because, despite the club’s catering to Black men, “[t]he Dumas was a paper bag club … Carney was too dark for admittance.”

As the novel shifts to the 1960s and Carney becomes a person of some means, the club changes its tune and admits some Blacks with darker skin. It’s sobering to think that Whitehead’s fictitious club might represent some true sentiment in the Harlem community at the time, that there were degrees of skin color acceptable to admission to such a club and those that weren’t. In what was for me the most disturbing moment of the novel, Carney wonders what his mother-in-law—more light-skinned—must think of the fact that Carney’s daughter—her granddaughter—has Carney’s darker skin. “He saw her flinch in the hospital room after the delivery. All that hard work and then look at what her daughter marries.”

By and large, Whitehead’s characters steer close to the common and well-earned tropes associated with American racism at the time—or this time—but to the author’s credit, he creates a more complicated picture of race that suggests the multifaceted prejudices Blacks of the time endured. “…in Harlem a few blocks was everything. A few blocks was the difference between strivers and crooks, between opportunity and the hard scrabble.” Even in this homogeneously Black area, certain members of the community couldn’t expect a fair shake from even their closest neighbors, much less the world beyond.

Still, Whitehead steadfastly avoids such complications within Carney’s soul, making his protagonist’s dalliances into crime simply the way the tide of his life has pushed him. Sure, Carney holds grudges, and he’s clever at working the machinations of his world to get back at those who have slighted him, but he’s somehow never at risk. Good crime fiction uses the crime to show us something deeper about the protagonist. In Harlem Shuffle, Carney gets off scot free.

(Doubleday, Sept. 14, 2021)

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Art Edwards

Art Edwards’s reviews have appeared in Salon, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Kenyon Review, among many others. He was cofounder of the Refreshments. His recently finished novel is called Nineteen Ways to Destroy Your Rock Band.

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