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Criminal acts in Colson Whitehead’s ‘Harlem Shuffle’

A small-time crook anchors the author’s latest

Illustration for review of "Harlem Shuffle" by Colson Whitehead. 0912Harlem; BOOKS; 9-12-21Oboh Moses for The Boston Globe

When we meet Ray Carney, the protagonist of “Harlem Shuffle,” Colson Whitehead’s 10th book and eighth novel, he’s in lower Manhattan, “halfway down Cortlandt, off Greenwich” visiting his radio repairman, Aronowitz. It’s 1959. Carney and Aronowitz are loose partners in the sale and distribution of stolen TV, radio, and stereo equipment. Carney is also the proprietor of a “gently used” furniture and appliance store on Harlem’s west side.

Carney would never call himself a thief. In fact, he imagines himself as “only slightly bent” when it comes to being crooked. After all, he is a graduate of Queens College and an industrious entrepreneur. He and Elizabeth, his wife, are hard-working, lower-middle-class Harlemites with bourgeois dreams of movin’ on up to a tony rowhouse in the St. Nicholas Historic District or into a Sugar Hill “classic-six” with gorgeous western light and great views of the Hudson River.


But Carney comes by his self-appraisal honestly: His hophead cousin and his scheming-hustler father are crooks of the highest order. The cousin, Freddie, is a full, robust, wild-card character. He’s the one who draws Carney into the ring of thieves who pull the Hotel Theresa heist in the novel’s opening section. Carney’s old man, Mike, is only a spirit in these pages, wafting up occasionally to poke the protagonist’s psyche, reminding him of his birthright.

Even before the narrative starts, the cops have already killed Mike. Following his father’s death, Carney gains a four-part inheritance, including Mike’s old truck, his network of felonious colleagues, and his penchant for plotting capers. Mike’s fourth bequest comes with the truck: Carney discovers $30,000 in cash stashed below the truck’s spare tire and months later he signs the lease for the storefront on 125th Street.

Whitehead has designed the book to fold out from that space with symmetrical beauty: the novel’s 318 pages have been divided — nearly equally — into three named and dated sections (“The Truck, 1959,” “Dorvay, 1961,” “Cool It Baby, 1964”), each unraveling a separate scheme. Like a dealer in Three-card Monte, the author shows, shuffles, and overlaps these plots, daring you to enter the gambit.


The middle card, “Dorvay, 1961,” seems like the winner to me. Trying to shed his lowly background and join the elite Harlem circle his in-laws occupy, Carney attends a “smoker” at The Dumas Club, a private dining and social organization for Negro men. Wilfred Duke, an uptown banker and the club’s president, suggests that Carney might move ahead of other prospective new members were he to add a “sweetener” to his application. When he realizes that Duke is a shill without honor, Carney disrupts his body’s clock to begin using the wee hours to design an intricate, arctic vengeance. Entering a state of dorvay — his misspelling of the French concept, “dorveille from dormir, to sleep, and veiller, to be awake” — Carney becomes a dreamy thinker-tinker, using the interstitial hours, like Benjamin Franklin, to “sketch inventions.” The play Carney executes is ruthless, devastating, and hilarious.

Whitehead’s novels have been set in various parts of the United States, but ultimately his stories always return to Harlem and New York City. There’s a fascinating map of the boroughs — especially Manhattan and Brooklyn — running through his novels. Ray Carney, for instance, traverses parts of Harlem and downtown Manhattan that readers can also pinpoint in “The Nickel Boys,” “Sag Harbor,” “John Henry Days,” and “The Intuitionist.”


In his book-length essay, “The Colossus of New York,” Whitehead writes that it was “on the uptown No. 1 train” where he started building his version of Harlem: “My first city memory is of looking out a subway window as the train erupted from the tunnel on the way to 125th Street and palsied up onto the elevated tracks.” Walk eight minutes east along 125th Street from that stop hovering above Broadway and you’ll arrive on the corner of Morningside Avenue where Carney’s Furniture is supposed to sit.

“Harlem Shuffle” closes with a story line that unwinds during the 1964 Harlem Uprising that erupted after an NYPD lieutenant killed 15-year-old James Powell. At the risk of explaining too much, I won’t detail the third section. Instead, I’ll point you to the closing pages of the novel where Whitehead, with dazzling skill, shows us that his crime fiction was never meant to be a lark, a playful reprieve, after the consecutive, brilliant, bruising blows of “The Underground Railroad” and “Nickel Boys.”

Carney’s trade in black market goods, all his talk about home furnishing lines, and his desire for status-conferring addresses suggest that the novel’s story is actually about New York real estate: who owns it, gets wealthy from it, and how that wealth is generated. But Whitehead also asks us to imagine the aftermath of the uprising and all the problems that inspired it: divestment in public schools and public works, over-policing, underemployment and joblessness, and the scourge of drugs.


All of the above seems to be on Carney’s mind when he ventures downtown in order to visit Aronowitz again. Circling back to Greenwich Street, he sees instead that Radio Row has been razed. Everything “had been demolished and erased for the World Trade Center site . . . This was the aftermath of a ruinous battle.” The construction site and the Harlem streets “made strange by violence” flipped the city “inside and out” and configured it as “unreal.” Yet, Carney realizes that whatever happened uptown, that devastation “had been nothing compared to what lay before him now [at the WTC], but if you bottled the rage and hope and fury of all the people of Harlem and made it into a bomb, the results would look something like this.”

This moment resonates backward and forward across time simultaneously. The continually fluctuating conditions of Black American life; the WTC rising and crumbling at once. The author captures six decades of American experience in Carney’s glance. The scene demonstrates Whitehead’s linguistic prowess, formal precision, and electric imagination. Those very elements also make “Harlem Shuffle” exciting and wise.


By Colson Whitehead

Doubleday, 336 pp., $28.95

Walton Muyumba, author of “The Shadow and the Act: Black Intellectual Practice, Jazz Improvisation, and Philosophical Pragmatism,” holds the Susan D. Gubar Chair in Literature at Indiana University.