UnCovered Review by Collette Jones, Librarian, ACLS Pleasantville Branch
Colson Whitehead is a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning author, has delivered a lighthearted, crime story set in Harlem, New York City during the 1950’s and 1960’s with Harlem Shuffle. An entertaining as well as powerful story, it touches on race and culture with an emphasis based in morality and ethics with the social climate setting the stage as a crime read but also as an historical fiction piece re-imagining Harlem.
Colson Whitehead’s novel Harlem Shuffle is written from the third person point of view and in the past tense. The novel takes place in Harlem, New York, over the course of six years, spanning from 1959 through 1964. In Part I, Ray Carney is attempting to keep his struggling used furniture business alive. For the past few years, he has tried to live an upright life. He and his wife Elizabeth live in a small apartment on 127th Street in Harlem. He tries telling himself that even if he does not have a lot of money, he will not resort to criminal activity like his father once did to live a better life in a better location. His father, Big Mike Carney, has always had a criminal reputation in the neighborhood. After Carney’s mother died, Big Mike abandoned Carney. He went to live with his cousin Freddie and his aunt Millie. He and Freddie often got into trouble committing petty thefts. In the narrative present, Freddie is still involved in the criminal world, but Carney wants no part of it. Therefore, when Freddie comes to Carney asking for his help with the upcoming Hotel Theresa heist, Carney refuses. Despite his efforts to stay out of Freddie’s mess, Freddie involves Carney. In the weeks that follow, Carney must protect his cousin, his family, and himself from violent criminals. Eventually, with the help of one of his father’s old friends, Pepper, Carney escapes a series of dangerous scenarios. He realizes that the criminal life might not be so bad after all. In Part II, Carney has begun using the furniture shop as a front for criminal activity. Local thieves bring him stolen loot, which Carney moves with the help of a local jeweler, Harvey Moskowitz. Suddenly Carney feels that he is becoming the powerful and successful man he has always wanted to be. He is even up for membership at the local elite Dumas Club. When one of its influential members, Wilfred Duke, breaks their deal and denies Carney admission; Carney becomes desperate for revenge. With the help of Pepper and others, Carney lures Duke into a trap. He photographs Duke naked and sends the pictures to the local paper. Duke disappears with a wealth of money stolen from the club. Afterwards, Carney realizes that revenge feels like triumph. He no longer wants to separate his wicked self from his upright self.
In Part III, Carney and his family have moved into a Riverside Drive apartment. Carney always believed that living in this neighborhood would grant him ultimate happiness and contentment. However, he soon realizes that he still wants more. One day Freddie comes to him looking for help once more. He and his friend Linus stole documents and jewelry from Linus’s wealthy family, and Freddie needs Carney to hide the loot. Carney understands that helping with the job has less to do with protecting Freddie and more to do with proving something to himself and others. He invokes Pepper’s help once more. The men are able to get out of the situation, but Freddie dies. Over the course of the months following, Carney notices how much his city and life have changed. Despite all of his encounters with danger and death, Carney has no intention of giving up his criminal life. Choices are made setting his life in a new direction.
Whitehead has delivered novels for more than twenty years including Sag Harbor, Zone One, The Underground Railroad (Pulitzer Prize winner), and The Nickel Boys (Pulitzer Prize winner). And, like many of his others, Harlem Shuffle is a literary delight.