September 2021


‘Harlem Shuffle’ by Colson Whitehead

By Declan Fry
The author of ‘The Underground Railroad’ offers a disappointingly straightforward neo-noir caper set in the early ’60s

Hearing the name Colson Whitehead, many may recall the author’s most well-known book to date, The Underground Railroad (2016). I recall the author’s most well-known tiff to date – that with English critic James Wood (begun when Wood harshly reviewed Whitehead’s second novel and ending years later with Whitehead parodying Wood: “Wow, Fiction Works!”). It was more heat than light, but happened to coincide with a shift in Whitehead’s narratives of contemporary America: portraits of Black advancement in an avowed meritocracy shifted toward more historical refractions of those themes. Harlem Shuffle (Fleet) returns such concerns to the foreground, while maintaining a foot in the recent past.

The novel revolves around Ray Carney and unfolds in three sections, each set a few years apart. We begin in 1959, with Ray selling mostly used furniture. His wife is from a good family. He has a daughter and baby on the way. But Hamlet’s ghost is in the wings: his criminal father’s legacy. “[L]iving taught you,” Ray reflects, “that you didn’t have to live the way you’d been taught.” If this reads as premonitory, you’ve read correctly: Ray may have a better half in his wife, but his cousin, Freddie, is an eternal ne’er-do-well. Every crook has to start somewhere, and Freddie gets Ray started somewhere small, showing up with the occasional piece of jewellery, a stray TV or a radio of don’t ask, don’t tell provenance: “There was a natural flow of goods in and out and through people’s lives, and Ray facilitated that churn.” Things escalate when Freddie suggests Ray as a fence for a jewel heist at the Hotel Theresa (the “Waldorf of Harlem”), turning the novel into a meditation on façades and balancing acts.

Commentary on the present is not uncommon in novels set in the past, and Ray’s compromises certainly speak to our times (recall President Obama’s sometime designation as “Compromiser-in-chief”). While acting as a fence himself, Ray must decide on which side he wants to sit: crooked, or straight and narrow? He is the anti-Bartleby, a man who, when faced with a choice between compromise and integrity, finds himself avowing: “I would prefer not to, but what the hell – why not!” We also get a bit of Bellovian place-setting in Whitehead’s depiction of Harlem – “[t]hat rustling, keening thing of people and concrete” – and a commentary on Black Lives Matter via the novel’s culminating set piece, the Harlem riot of 1964. It’s all Dickensian flourish and jouissance, bristling with riffs, set-ups and side characters such as Chink (“known for his facility with a straight razor”) and Yea Big (“On account of his johnson”). The Occupy Movement of 2011, too, feels visible in the novel’s commentary on strivers and large-scale crooks, the sort who prefer Manhattan’s skyscrapers to the used-furniture stores of Harlem.

Perhaps owing to the limitations and tropes of its genre conceit – the caper novel has a much larger history in the United States – Harlem Shuffle, I confess, did little for me. Whitehead’s typically fizzy writing aside, the novel’s narrative, though diverting and amiable enough, is somewhat programmatic and workmanlike in its execution. A commentary on class, disillusionment and ways of moving up in the world, Harlem Shuffle is as idiosyncratic in its neo-noir fascinations as Whitehead’s debut, The Intuitionist (1999), where the author paired, as Zach Baron described it, “James Ellroy and Elmore Leonard with Ralph Ellison and Thomas Pynchon”. Ellroy and Leonard are certainly here, and some readers might detect something of Ellison’s Invisible Man in Ray Carney’s pliability, his tendency to adapt and bend for a buck. It would just be nice to see a little more of Pynchon, too.

Declan Fry

Declan Fry is an essayist, critic and proud descendant of the Yorta Yorta.

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