The two books of Colson Whitehead’s that I have read previous to this one, The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, have been exciting and original works of fiction, and both, incidentally, have won the Pulitzer Prize. Along with his newest novel, Harlem Shuffle, they are all set in some form of the historical past. The Underground Railroad takes place in an alternate history in which the railroad is an actual physical railroad instead of a series of hideaways and routes that would transport escaped slaves to freedom in the 19th century. The Nickel Boys, which takes place in the 1960s, is based on a real reformatory in Florida that was rife with abuse, torture, and death; after it closed the remains of many students were found on the grounds in unmarked graves. And now, with Harlem Shuffle, Whitehead gives us an inside look at Harlem as it was in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The main character, a man named Ray Carney, manages to survive while balancing interactions in the honest and dishonest sides of Harlem’s milieu. Ostensibly he is an upstanding businessman with a thriving furniture store catering to black clientele. He keeps up with the latest designs and models and is always striving to introduce new product lines into his showroom. He is also, however, a fence of stolen goods. He’ll take in “gently used” televisions, appliances, and other items that have obviously been stolen; he also has contacts to dispose of jewelry, coins, and other more expensive items. His wife Elizabeth, who works at a travel agency specializing in helping African Americans find safe places to vacation, has no idea of the shadier side of Carney’s business. His cousin Freddie is a ne’er-do-well who invites trouble along wherever he goes. There is also an extensive cast of fascinating supporting characters.
The book is split into three parts. The first part takes place in 1959 and concerns a robbery Freddie is involved in that goes amiss; Carney attempts to get him out of trouble by fencing some jewels Freddie has stolen. The second part happens in 1961. A crooked banker swindles Carney out of some money, and Carney concocts an elaborate scheme of revenge. To pull it off, though, he needs to enlist the assistance of various members of the Harlem underworld. The third part also has to do with a jewel theft, and it takes place just after the Harlem riot of 1964.
Although there are exciting scenes and tense situations, these are secondary to Whitehead’s accomplishment of bringing the Harlem of the fifties and sixties alive through the viewpoints of his characters. Telling the story through three incidents taking place in different years creates a complex, multilayered effect that allows readers to grasp what life was like for black residents of Harlem back then – the opposition that they faced from the white community and what they had to go through to survive.
Colson Whitehead is an excellent writer. Pulitzer Prizes for one novel after the other make for a hard act to follow, but this book does not disappoint. It is exciting, fun, touching, tragic, intense, and profound.