Genre: Historical Fiction
Length: 336 pages
First Published: 2021
In 1960s Harlem, Ray Carney has a reputation as an upstanding used furniture salesman. Although Carney strives to live up to what he knows he can be, times aren’t like they used to be, and he occasionally supplements his income with a side gig fencing items for the underworld of Harlem. When Carney’s cousin ropes him into being the fence for a heist gone wrong, Carney finds himself caught up with shady cops and local gangsters.
Whitehead is a gorgeous writer with a powerful command of visuals, but I have to admit, I struggled to get into his newest novel. The beginning moved so slowly I was tempted to quit, and just as it picked up (a heist, a murder!), the section ended and the story jumped two years ahead. However, I’m so glad I stuck with it because halfway through, I finally connected with Ray’s struggle to straddle moral and ethical lines as he deals with the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of 1960s Harlem.
From two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead, a gloriously entertaining novel of heists, shakedowns, and rip-offs set in Harlem in the 1960s.
“Ray Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked . . .”
To his customers and neighbors on 125th street, Carney is an upstanding salesman of reasonably priced furniture, making a decent life for himself and his family. He and his wife Elizabeth are expecting their second child, and if her parents on Striver’s Row don’t approve of him or their cramped apartment across from the subway tracks, it’s still home.
Few people know he descends from a line of uptown hoods and crooks, and that his façade of normalcy has more than a few cracks in it. Cracks that are getting bigger all the time.
Cash is tight, especially with all those installment-plan sofas, so if his cousin Freddie occasionally drops off the odd ring or necklace, Ray doesn’t ask where it comes from. He knows a discreet jeweler downtown who doesn’t ask questions, either.
Then Freddie falls in with a crew who plan to rob the Hotel Theresa—the “Waldorf of Harlem”—and volunteers Ray’s services as the fence. The heist doesn’t go as planned; they rarely do. Now Ray has a new clientele, one made up of shady cops, vicious local gangsters, two-bit pornographers, and other assorted Harlem lowlifes.
Thus begins the internal tussle between Ray the striver and Ray the crook. As Ray navigates this double life, he begins to see who actually pulls the strings in Harlem. Can Ray avoid getting killed, save his cousin, and grab his share of the big score, all while maintaining his reputation as the go-to source for all your quality home furniture needs?
Harlem Shuffle‘s ingenious story plays out in a beautifully recreated New York City of the early 1960s. It’s a family saga masquerading as a crime novel, a hilarious morality play, a social novel about race and power, and ultimately a love letter to Harlem.
But mostly, it’s a joy to read, another dazzling novel from the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning Colson Whitehead.
About Colson Whitehead
Colson Whitehead is the author of a number of books, including Harlem Shuffle, The Nickel Boys, Sag Harbor, Crook Manifesto, and The Intuitionist. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for The Underground Railroad. He currently lives in New York City. Visit the author’s website →