Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit
Review: 'Harlem Shuffle,' by Colson Whitehead
0 Comments
AP

Review: 'Harlem Shuffle,' by Colson Whitehead

  • 0
{{featured_button_text}}
"Harlem Shuffle," by Colson Whitehead; Doubleday.

"Harlem Shuffle," by Colson Whitehead; Doubleday (336 pages, $28.95). (Doubleday/TNS)

FICTION: Colson Whitehead's enthralling, evocative new novel transforms a petty heist into a resonant exploration of race and class.

"Harlem Shuffle" by Colson Whitehead; Doubleday (336 pages, $28.95)

———

Colson Whitehead is perhaps our most protean novelist, shape-shifting with each book, a jack of all trades and master of all. His enthralling, cinematic new work, "Harlem Shuffle," capers away from the weightiness of "The Underground Railroad" and "The Nickel Boys," both winners of the Pulitzer Prize; here he tweaks a simple heist story to limn enduring conflicts of race and class.

Set at the dawn of President Kennedy's New Frontier, "Harlem Shuffle" conjures, with uncanny precision, a world so close and yet so far. The son of a street thug, Ray Carney has stuck to the straight and narrow, an A-student navigating potholes, literal and metaphorical, in his neighborhood. With an eye for stylish furniture — he's opened a store on 125th Street — and his marriage to Elizabeth, a daughter of bourgeois Strivers' Row, he aspires to W.E.B. Du Bois' Talented Tenth, yearning for admission into the Dumas Club, alongside Black bankers, physicians and politicians.

Not so fast. Enter Freddie, Carney's petty-crime cousin, who ensnares him in a jewelry heist at the Theresa Hotel, Harlem's answer to the Waldorf-Astoria. The robbery comes off successfully, but in the aftermath Carney trades his soul like a used dinette set; he's doomed to the gravity of his father's crooked ways.

The Benjamins strangle Carney's better angels as he slips into a noirish "dorvay" between virtue and vice, between the dead and the living, a foot soldier in "a whole mean army of schemers and nocturnal masterminds working their rackets … toiling and plotting in their apartments and SROs and twenty-four-hour greasy spoons."

Whitehead's evocation of early 1960s Harlem — strewn with double-crosses and double standards, broken glass and broken dreams — is irresistible.

"A cabbie pounded on his horn at an old biddy jaywalking and she cursed him out, dragging a battered suitcase," he writes. "One of the street preachers yelled 'I'm saving souls here!' and raised his arms as if parting seas. Down the block, two newsboys from rival papers fought over the turf in front of a cigar store. Their dropped tabloids fanned out on the sidewalk and trembled in the exhaust of a city bus."

The novel also leans into the period's slang and slurs, wrenching hard truths from the gleaming surface of postwar America.

Whitehead's sentences are beautifully bricked together — it's nigh impossible to wedge a blade between them — and his midcentury deadpan is flawless. But there's a touch of Renaissance storytelling, as well. His pilgrim's progress is also a Dantean descent, with a seasoning of Shakespearean revenge drama. In Carney we glimpse the circles of hell, Hamlet lurking on the night watch. A fury smolders in this striver: When he acts, he's not responding to just slights and bribes, but rather to a social order built to chain him to his own blighted block.

While a valentine to a time and place, "Harlem Shuffle" brilliantly tackles the daunting challenges of any American era. I keep waiting for Whitehead to stumble, if slightly. I wait in vain.

———

Hamilton Cain reviews fiction and nonfiction for a range of venues, including the Star Tribune, Oprah Daily, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. He lives in Brooklyn.

0 Comments

Stay up-to-date on what's happening

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

MIAMI — When South Florida writer Brad Meltzer learned that a Pennsylvania school board had banned his books “I am Rosa Parks” and “I am Martin Luther King, Jr.,” he knew he couldn’t ignore it. “If you’re taking the lessons of Rosa Parks, you have to fight back,” said the creator of the Ordinary People Change the World series, which profiles historic figures including Abraham Lincoln, Frida ...

NONFICTION: An ornery, broken-down, used-up man and an ornery, broken-down, used-up dog find each other. "The Speckled Beauty" by Rick Bragg; Alfred A. Knopf (238 pages, $26) ——— Those of us with city dogs (what Rick Bragg calls "fancy dog people") might be aghast to read about the life of Speck, the rambunctious, mostly untrained, free-ranging and always-spoiling-for-a-fight rescue dog that ...

"Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol," a series that premiered on Peacock last week featuring ace symbologist Robert Langdon, represents another high point in the lucrative career of one of the bestselling mystery authors of all time. But it also serves as a clue in someone else's quest — that of his ex-wife, Blythe Brown. The show is among several projects embroiled in a court battle over the ...

Her new book, "The Beatryce Prophecy," sprang from a rediscovered draft that she had abandoned after the death of her beloved mother. MINNEAPOLIS — In August 2018, Kate DiCamillo was in the office of her Minneapolis home, sorting through a decade's worth of old papers and manuscripts, when she happened upon a stunning discovery — the first 40 pages of a long-abandoned, long-forgotten novel. ...

Nothing says spooky season like a new memoir from Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson, which contains a major revelation about her real-life identity. In “Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark,” Peterson details a 19-year relationship with a woman named Teresa “T” Wierson — officially joining the LGBTQ+ community that had already long embraced her as a gay icon. Released Tuesday, ...

Time for a new paperback? Here are six fresh-off-the-press possibilities; a little mystery-heavy (hey, it's almost fall), but something for everyone. "Snow" by John Banville (Hanover Square Press, $16.99). For years, the Irish novelist Banville has written a series of crackling mystery novels under the name of Benjamin Black — but this whodunit, set in 1950s Ireland, is under his own name. ...

"Inside Comedy: The Soul, Wit, and Bite of Comedy and Comedians of the Last Five Decades" by David Steinberg; Knopf (352 pages, $30) ——— Think of your favorite comic and your mind will likely not conjure the image of David Steinberg. There are many lists that exist ranking the “greatest” comedians of all time. Many of these have Richard Pryor as their No. 1. He was a close friend of Steinberg, ...

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

Breaking News