Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Reviewed by Harriet

‘Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked’.

So we are introduced to the leading character in Colson Whitehead’s new novel. His two most recent novels – both Pulitzer Prize winners – have been reviewed on Shiny: The Underground Railroad (here) and The Nickel Boys (here). Having admired them both tremendously, I was excited to get a copy of Harlem Shuffle. I knew already that it was going to be a heist novel, a markedly different genre from the overtly political themes of the previous two – slavery in The Underground Railroad and institutional racism in  The Nickel Boys – but of course the politics of race and class can’t be absent from a novel set in mid-20th-century Harlem. 

A review I read described the novel as a three-act tragedy: it’s structured in three parts, starting in 1959 and ending in 1964. As for tragedy – well, a tragedy needs a tragic hero, a fundamentally good, even admirable man, whose downfall is brought about by a fatal flaw, and Ray Carney seems to fit the bill. A bright young man, he’s got a degree in business studies and has aspirations to be a successful businessman. This would have been hard to achieve, given his dubious beginnings, but for the fact that he discovered a large sum of money after his father’s death in the boot of his car, the proceeds of one of his criminal activities. So Carney had set himself up as a furniture salesman, and he’s proud of how well his business is going:

Carney liked to walk his showroom before opening. That half hour of morning light pouring through the big windows, over the bank across the street. He shifted a couch so it wasn’t up against the wall, straightened a sale sign, made a neat display of manufacturer brochures. His black shoes tapped on wood, were silenced by the plush give of an area rug, resumed their sound.

Unfortunately, though, Carney can’t resist a bit of dabbling on the side. His cousin Freddie, of whom he is deeply fond, manages to inveigle him into participating in a some ‘schemes’, and soon Carney is living a double life. He becomes, in fact, a fence. This side of him is completely unknown to his wife Elizabeth, whose wealthy family live on the upper-crust Harlem street called Striver’s Row. Carney loves Elizabeth and adores their two kids, and wants only the best for them. He sees his life as a fence as forming part of ‘a natural flow of goods in and out and through peoples’ lives, from here to there, a churn of property’, with himself as middleman. As for his occasional urges to dabble in crime, he reasons that ‘the thing inside him that gave a yell or tug or shout every now and then was not the same thing his father had’. But by the end of the 1959 section, he’s participated in a major heist, drawn in of course by Freddie, and he’s saying to himself ‘I may be broke sometimes, but I ain’t crooked….Although, he had to admit, perhaps he was’. 

The second part of the novel, set in 1961, is called DORVAY*. This is how Carney refers to his habit of waking in the middle of the night, having several hours of wakefulness, and then completing his sleep afterwards. This enables him to slip out of the apartment and receive stolen goods which he then sells on, while continuing his daily life as a respectable businessman. Not quite respectable enough, however, for his father-in-law, who belongs to the Dumas Club, whose members are the most successful black men in Harlem. So when Carney gets a chance to apply to join, his interviewer, the successful banker Wilfred Duke, asks him for a contribution of five hundred dollars. To his shock, Carney’s application is turned down, and Duke refuses to return the money. His fury with Duke leads him into a complex, and satisfyingly successful scheme to overthrow the man. It costs him money, but he reflects that ‘Black eye aside, it had been all pleasure’.

Part three moves forward to 1964. The Carneys have moved to a classy apartment in the quiet area of Riverside Drive, beautifully furnished with the best the store can offer. But Harlem is in turmoil. An unarmed fifteen-year-old boy had been killed by a policeman in cold blood, and the streets are full of rioters, upturning cars and setting fire to shops and buildings. This is the background to the biggest heist of all, into which Carney is drawn, as always, by the irrepressible Freddie, and this time it ends in tragedy. Not, perhaps, the kind that you’d expect, but devastating nevertheless. Will anything change as a result? Can Carney be seen as a tragic hero? We’re left to make up our own minds.

As I said, the politics of race cannot be absent from such a novel. There’s a moment towards the end when Carney is being followed by two white gangsters, and briefly entertains ‘the ridiculous proposition of a Negro calling a cop to complain he was being threatened by two white men’. Racism permeates the lives of every character in the novel, taken for granted but bitterly resented. Of course it all comes to a head in the Harlem riots, with the trial of the policeman accused of unlawfully killing the unarmed boy ending in a verdict of not guilty. The novel was already written when the scarily similar episode of the George Floyd murder had ended in the policeman Derek Chauvin being sentenced to 22.5 years in prison. A sign that things are slowly moving in a better direction? Who knows. Meanwhile, in this hugely enjoyable novel, we get to see Harlem in all it’s vivid glory, good and bad existing side by side and often overlapping. Highly recommended.

  • Carney learns that the term originates in French, ‘dorveille’ (sleep/wake), a condition now known as biphasic sleep.
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Harriet is co-founder and an editor of Shiny New Books, and is all too familiar with dorvay.

Colson Whitehead, Harlem Shuffle (Fleet, 2021). 978-0708899441, 336pp., hardback.

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