From the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, 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.
Thank you to the publisher and Netgalley for providing me with a free e-ARC in exchange for an honest review! All opinions contained within are my own.
I’m not a big historical fiction reader but, ever since reading Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, I knew I would pick up anything he wrote! Apparently I enjoy a very specific brand of historical fiction and that’s books that revolve around the Black experience. This novel further cemented that fact!
Harlem Shuffle follows a Black man named Ray Carney living in 1960s Harlem. Carney is a furniture salesman with an adoring family… and maybe a little something less wholesome on the side. What started as selling a few questionable items that his cousin, Freddie, would pass on soon turns into Carney getting mixed up with a heist and local gangsters. Carney is trying to live a better life than his criminal father, while at the same time trying to prove to his snooty father-in-law that he can take care of his precious daughter. Money is tight and Carney soon finds himself living a double life: one as an up-and-coming furniture salesman and pillar of the community and one as a crook.
Once again, Colson Whitehead has blown me away with how easily he can pull me into a time period and setting so thoroughly that it feels like a memory. I feel like I experienced the riots in Harlem, the sweltering heat in the summertime, right alongside our main character. Whitehead’s writing is rich and evocative; it makes it easy to get lost in the pages and forget where you are until you put the book down! I love a book that can engross my attention like that and this one definitely delivered.
Beyond Whitehead’s incredible writing, the character work he does on Mr. Ray Carney is impeccable. It’s fascinating to watch his struggle between wanting to be a good man and wanting to give his family everything he didn’t have when he was growing up. His struggle to remain on the straight and narrow while being tempted by the seedier side of Harlem. I enjoyed the journey we follow as he slowly gets more and more involved with the criminal element, then tries his hardest to pull himself back out. It really showed how a bad set of circumstances can turn almost anyone down the wrong path. And Carney wasn’t the only captivating character in this book. There were so many colorful side characters that came in and out of his life throughout that absolutely shone on the page! I got a little excited when I found out there was going to be a sequel because I want to know what happens to all of them. I’m invested in their story and I’m ready to know more.
I was also a fan of the historical part of this fiction. We delve into what life was like for a Black man in 1960s Harlem and I love that we see both the bad and the good. I’ve grown weary of Black narratives that only focus on the trauma, so it was refreshing to read something that had a bit of both instead of just all the bad. Overall, this was an entertaining and insightful read that captured my interest from page one. And I know for a fact I’ll be picking up the sequel once it is out!