Crook Manifesto by Colson Whitehead

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Reviewed by Harriet

A man has a hierarchy of crime, what is morally acceptable and what is not, a crook manifesto, and those who subscribe to lesser codes are cockroaches.

Like Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle, which I reviewed on here in 2021, his latest novel also has a three-part structure. It is, in fact, the second book in what Whitehead has now realised is a trilogy. Thus, it is also set in Harlem, and again features Ray Carney, who was described in the earlier novel as ‘only slightly bent when it came to being crooked’. The son of Big Mike, a notorious out and out villain, Ray is university educated, runs a successful furniture store, and, in the earlier novel, fences stolen goods on the side. Where before we were in 1959, 1961 and 1964, here the action has moved forward to 1971, 1973, and 1976, and Harlem is in an ever increasingly drastic state: political violence, crime and police corruption has brought the city close to bankruptcy. 

As the novel opens, Carney is still running his thriving furniture business, and has started investing in property. He’s devoted to his beautiful, respectable wife Elizabeth and his two teenage children, and supposedly has retired from receiving stolen goods on the side. But when he’s offered the chance of fencing a huge haul of massively important diamonds, he can’t resist. Meanwhile his teenage daughter has begged him to get tickets for her to see the Jackson Five. His only hope of getting them means he must contact Munson, the detective who also appeared in the earlier novel, now being investigated by the Knapp Commission into police corruption. Munson can certainly get the tickets, but in return Carney must act as his fence, bagman, and accomplice. The night that follows soon deteriorates into horrendous and chaotic violence on which Carney becomes a shocked onlooker. He does get the tickets, though, and as he watches the concert with his daughter, his ‘upbringing was such that he couldn’t help but opine that flared trousers were well-suited for quick access to an ankle holster’.

In the second section, set three years later, Carney’s pyromaniac friend Zippo has become a film director, and hires the furniture showroom to film ‘Secret Agent: Nefertiti’, a blaxploitation movie. In need of a security man, the company hires Carney’s friend Pepper, a professional criminal who finds himself rather bemused to be doing a straight job. But the job ends up taking him into the underworld anyway when he has to track down the vanished Lucinda Cole, the leading lady, who was once the girlfriend of a Harlem gang boss. It’s Pepper’s thoughts that are quoted at the start of this review. 

In section three, it’s 1976, the year of the bicentennial. Carney is bemused by the ridiculous efforts made by local businesses to celebrate this event and wonders how on earth he can put up a suitable display in the showroom: 

On billboards all over town, Lady Liberty held a mustard-splattered Nathan’s hot dog instead of her ledger, and Crazy Eddie’s arranged the Founding Fathers around a document legislating ‘Insane Savings!’. 

But things in the city are turning deadly serious: arson attacks on buildings are being carried out professionally. And this is not solely for insurance purposes: politics also play a part. As a corrupt lawyer puts it, ‘If East Harlem and Brownsville burn up, think how much money we can save on slum clearance before we redevelop it’. One of Carney’s own apartments is torched, and when the young son of one of his neighbours is hospitalised following a firebombing, he feels impelled to get involved, with predictably dangerous results.

Crook Manifesto tells an exciting and engaging story, one with important historical, political and social dimensions. But in the hands of Colson Whitehead, it becomes more than that. Whitehead writes with great wit, and the novel is full of passages that cry out to be quoted, such as Carney’s thoughts on hearing a customer has died in the recliner he had recently bought: ‘His final earthly feeling had been the luxurious caress of that polyurethane core. Carney was glad the man went out satisfied — how tragic for your last thought to be, “I should have gone with the Naugahyde”’. He also writes with great compassion, seeing into characters who might, in lesser hands, have been shallow caricatures. There’s a tender portrait of the aging, ailing Pepper, and a brilliant one of the pyrotechnic film director:

Like many artists Zippo had been starved of attention in his younger days, and like many artists he channeled a modicum of praise into a contempt-of-audience phase: Invincible! He took to dressing like a Negro Salvador Dalí and penciled in a handlebar mustache. Shambling in velour, he pushed a watermelon in a baby carriage down DeKalb Avenue and harrassed strangers, demanding to know if they “liked his baby chile.” Everybody assumed he was high most of the time. He wasn’t.

If you like really fine writing, conveying many shades of everything from family life to the Harlem underworld to social satire and political and police corruption, you really shouldn’t miss reading Crook Manifesto. Could it win Whitehead his third Pulitzer Prize?

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Harriet is one of the co-founders and joint editor of Shiny New Books.
Colson Whitehead, Crook Manifesto (Fleet, 2023). 978-0349727646, 336pp., hardback.

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