Colson Whitehead novels have one thing in common: they all cleverly subvert genre expectations. His works include a coming of age novel (Sag Harbor), historical novels inspired by real life horror that maintain realism (The Nickel Boys) or incorporate fantasy elements (The Underground Railroad), a post-apocalyptic zombie novel (Zone One) and even one about elevator inspectors that’s really a detective story (The Intuitionist). In his latest novel, Harlem Shuffle, Whitehead writes a fresh take on classic crime novels in his tribute to midcentury Harlem.
Ray Carney is a Black man who graduates from college, opens a furniture store and marries into a wealthy Strivers’ Row family with high expectations. When shadier opportunities present themselves, Carney is tempted. Tensions arise from his own struggles with just how “crooked” he will go in pursuit of prosperity and respect, knowing that the risks he takes could put his family in danger.
It’s impressive how Whitehead develops a masterful heist while creating exciting — and sometimes hilarious — characters. Whitehead exposes the hypocrisy of the world by juxtaposing the respected elite and law enforcement against criminals they have much in common with, against the backdrop of Harlem’s gentrification.
Readers far removed from the Harlem of the 60s can still relate to Carney’s “dorvay,” or the time after dinner with his wife and kids and snugly tucking them into bed, when he plans his crooked activities. A business and family man is one side of his persona; but he can’t deny his roots or his need for revenge against those that have wronged him. Anyone who has battled their own demons will appreciate Carney’s moral struggle as a character who defies categorization based on the classic tropes of good guys and bad guys.
Join the Indy Book Club, a collaboration between the Santa Barbara Independent and the Santa Barbara Public Library, for a virtual discussion of Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead on Wednesday, September 28 at 6 p.m. on Zoom. Register at independent.com/indybookclub.
Read Charles Donelan’s past interview with Whitehead here.