At the end of Colson Whitehead’s 2021 novel, “Harlem Shuffle,” it’s 1964 and the protagonist, Ray Carney, a “slightly bent” Harlem furniture store owner with a side-hustle fencing stolen jewelry and home electronics, ponders New York’s ever-churning cycle of destruction and renovation as he gazes upon the gaping crater and climbing girders of the World Trade Center. Dreaming of moving his wife and children into a brownstone in Harlem’s Strivers Row, Carney believes the construction site foretells his family’s rising fortunes. Simultaneously, Carney imagines the new home as an escape, as if they “didn’t live in the city at all.”
Whitehead’s latest novel, “Crook Manifesto,” opens in 1971, and Carney, his black market labors seemingly over, has the townhouse, and has his store on the straight and narrow. He’s also ambivalent about his abundance relative to the city’s grind. Outside the store, “Harlem rules” govern the neighborhood’s streets. Prospects for the city’s working people are low, “rowdy, unpredictable, more trifling than a loser uncle. The sirens [zip] up and down the aves as regularly as subway trains, all hours, per calamity’s timetable. … A fire engine … en route to a six-story building kerosened for the insurance, a dozen families inside.” While lower Manhattan’s rupture and rejuvenation continue apace, Harlem is aflame, its potential renewal deferred.
Like “Harlem Shuffle,” “Crook Manifesto” has three parts of nearly equal page length — ”Ringolevio, 1971″; “Nefertiti T.N.T., 1973″; “The Finishers, 1976″ — each unraveling a different, nine-chapter caper. In the first section, when his daughter, May, wants to see The Jackson 5 perform at Madison Square Garden, Carney turns to the crooked NYPD cop Munson (who also appears in “Harlem Shuffle”) for help securing seats. Munson proposes an exchange that draws Carney out of hiatus and makes him complicit to a series of vicious crimes.
Ringolevio, a 19th-century children’s game invented in New York City, serves as a leitmotif for both the opening story’s messy criming and the novel as a whole: Team Hunters attempts to capture members of Team Prey and place them in “jail”; members of Team Prey then strategize to enter the jail and tag players, thus freeing them to rejoin the game. Recalling this elaborate version of tag nostalgically at first, Carney uses its tactics to mount a counter-ruse in the novel’s opening act.
“Nefertiti T.N.T., 1973″ narrates the making of a Blaxploitation movie in Harlem. When the film’s lead goes missing, Pepper, another “Harlem Shuffle” holdover and Carney’s sometimes partner-in-crime, becomes an accidental detective and the section’s central player. Whitehead has developed Pepper into a gruff but lovable tough guy. A career crook, he embodies the novel’s philosophy: A thief must have “a hierarchy of crime, of what is morally acceptable and what is not, a crook manifesto, and those who subscribe to lesser codes are cockroaches.”
In this section, readers also meet Roscoe Pope, a Richard Pryor-like stand-up comedian who costars in “Nefertiti T.N.T.” Whitehead draws his performance in quick but emphatic strokes: “[his] body turned plastic — stout and militant, then wilting in cowardice, then staggering half in the bag — and his voice equally supple as he cycled through guises and characters. Preacher, white dude, ghetto dude, angry sister, the neighborhood wino, as if he were a transmitter hooked up to the private thoughts of a cramped subway car.”
In “The Finishers, 1976″ — set in the bicentennial — Carney learns that the 11-year-old son of an apartment tenant above his store has suffered life-threatening injuries when the dilapidated tenement where his Harlem crew hangs is firebombed. Detecting the fraudster igniting the city’s nightly fires, Carney wants retribution, and teams up with Pepper to expose a scheme involving insurance policies and redevelopment grants. Before the book ends, the hustle they uncover explodes several more incendiary devices.
Whitehead’s triptych plays out against the backdrop of deindustrialization and manifold Cold War-era political shifts slowly choking the city and country to death. In the 1970s, menacing forms of capitalist grift began squeezing working people, especially urban Black and Brown families, out of the economy. “Crook Manifesto” also highlights the post-1968 ideological divergence among radical Black freedom organizations; by the early 1970s, the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army, as the novel depicts, were in a shooting war with each other, vying for leadership in Harlem and other African American communities. Explaining that intramural conflict to his son, John, Carney describes that battle as pitting reformers against revolutionaries: “Reform is changing what’s already there to make it better, like stain-proof upholstery, or wheeled feet, and then wheeled feet with brakes. Revolution is when you throw out everything and start new. … The convertible sofa is revolution…”
Whitehead’s ironic, biting humor is laced throughout “Crook Manifesto.” Late in the novel, the havoc extinguished, Carney imagines the advertisement promoting his store’s Fourth of July sale. Riffing on Archibald Willard’s “Spirit of ‘76,” he envisions “[d]rums, fife, same shell-shocked stubbornness, but the musicians are black. Beat down, skulls full of dead-end thoughts, they keep playing. Preserving the color palette of the original, city gray and smog brown. … This is their march — folly, fortitude, and that brand of determination that comes from ignoring reality.” Carney wants to put this on his building “for all of Harlem to see: This is what we sell in here.”
Thinking of “Harlem Shuffle” as a loving pastiche of Chester Himes’s crime novels, perhaps we can read “Crook Manifesto” as a Blaxploitation farce like Sidney Poitier’s ’70s action-comedies, “Uptown, Saturday Night” and “Let’s Do It Again.” Though neither novel is experimental, Whitehead has imposed narrative constraints that challenge him to develop and maintain formal symmetry among the sections. Unfortunately this decision dilutes his plotting in parts two and three of the new book. But luckily, because of Whitehead’s blazing wit, striking cultural intelligence, and special storytelling talent, “Crook Manifesto” overcomes its flaws.
CROOK MANIFESTO: A Novel
By Colson Whitehead
Doubleday, 336 pages, $29
Walton Muyumba teaches literature at Indiana University-Bloomington. He is the author of “The Shadow and the Act: Black Intellectual Practice, Jazz Improvisation, and Philosophical Pragmatism.”