When I read the first sentence of Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle, I was hooked. “Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked.” Whitehead has said that he wanted to write a heist novel, needing a break from the serious subjects of his two Pulitzer Prize-winning novels, The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, and there are definitely aspects of a heist novel here, with shady characters we root for, some with names like Miami Joe, Pepper, Yea Big, and Chet the Vet (who once did a short stint in veterinary school). Carney has a foot in both the legal and criminal worlds. In addition to working as a fence, he owns a furniture store, in which he takes great pride. To him, this is his real, legitimate business, and if he occasionally accepts items to sell that “fell off a truck,” he is performing a service to the community by providing merchandise for them to place in their homes.
As he gets more immersed in illegal activities, though, he himself comes to question whether his two sides are really so separate, but given the world he lives in, Carney does what he thinks he needs to do to succeed. He wants to provide the best he can for his family, and he walks the streets dreaming about where they could move. But he also needs respect, and that can be hard to find. While immersing us in the Harlem of the late 1950s and early 1960s, with the people, music, food, buildings, and businesses, Whitehead also portrays the classism and racism that exist not only outside Harlem, but also within it. Carney’s in-laws disparagingly refer to him as a “rug peddler,” and look down on him for his darker skin.
Though the tone is lighter than his previous two novels, there are many harsh reminders of the reality of Harlem and the country as a whole. The riots of 1964 happen because a young boy is shot by the police. One character says, “You have the people who are angry. Justifiably so. And then there’s the police force. How are they going to defend this shit? Again!” The “Again” sharply brings home the fact that we are still asking this same question almost sixty years later. Carney’s wife, Elizabeth, works for a travel agency that tells Black people where it is safe to travel, which roads, towns, restaurants, and hotels, they can visit in relative safety, and which they cannot. As the sixties begin, the agency serves more and more groups like the Freedom Riders, for whom the stakes are even more dangerously high.
In a country in which the powerful have always taken from those who were weaker, what does it mean to steal? One character brings up the Dutch having taken the island of Manhattan from the Lenape Indians. One family, descendants of those Dutch settlers, still has vast wealth and influence in New York City. The thievery of Carney’s associates pale by comparison.
Still, the tone is not bleak. Even amid robbery, murder, and riots, Whitehead is able to inject humorous moments. Freddie, Carney’s cousin, complains in detail about his difficulties in getting a sandwich because of the riots. When Freddie’s apartment is broken into by the hired thugs of someone he has crossed, he explains to the landlady that he was behind on his installment payments to the Britannica company, and “they play for keeps.”
Whitehead can make you laugh out loud, but he can also make you weep. Toward the end, when Carney is grieving the death of someone he loves, Whitehead gives an eerily familiar picture of mourning. “Carney didn’t hear it for a while and then it was loud again: Remember me, This is your job now, Remember me or no one else will. At times it seemed the grief was powerful enough to shut down the world, cut off the juice, stop the earth from spinning. It was not. The world proceeded in its mealy fashion, the lights stayed on, the earth continued to spin and its seasons ravaged and renewed in turn.” Perhaps we are to find hope in that renewal, as Carney always looks forward to what could come next for him, even amid the trials of Harlem.
Award-winning author Rebecca D’Harlingue writes about seventeenth-century women forging a different path. Her debut novel, The Lines Between Us, won an Independent Press Award and a CIBA Chaucer Award. Her second novel, The Map Colorist, won a Literary Titan Award and a Firebird Book Award.