Review: Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

I’m one of the chorus of lovers of Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, so of course I was thrilled to receive an ARC of Harlem Shuffle. Heists and crime stories aren’t usually my go-to, so I was pleasantly surprised at just how much I enjoyed it.

What it’s about

From the Goodreads description:

“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.

My thoughts

From the description and the reviews I’ve seen, I was expecting a gritty crime caper with a historical Harlem backdrop. While that’s a valid, if bare-bones, description of Harlem Shuffle, the book in actuality is so much more. Funny, engaging, liberally peppered with societal issues, and blessed with vivid depictions of 1960s Harlem, Whitehead’s brilliant story is anchored by his superbly written characters, especially Ray Carney.

Ray is a self-made man, an entrepreneur, a family man with upward mobility, and he’s also the son of a low-level career criminal who was ultimately killed by police, and is no stranger to the streets and the criminal underbelly of his city. Against the backdrop of race riots, gentrification, and the civil rights movement, Ray tries to grow his business and improve the lives of himself and his family while being just a little bit crooked when necessary. He’s a complicated, good man who is able to move between the different societal layers of Harlem and make a lot of smart observations about what he sees and who he meets.

Whitehead’s evocative descriptions of Harlem in this time period made the neighborhood itself a character, and I so enjoyed all of the other characters populating Ray’s world. At times very funny, often anxiety-inducing, exciting and very much heartwarming, Harlem Shuffle is beautifully written and atmospheric.

I finished this book a week ago and initially determined this was a 4-star read for me, but as I realized Ray Carney and the feeling I enjoyed while reading Harlem Shuffle haven’t left me (though I’ve read two more books since), and that I can’t think of a single thing I didn’t love about the book, I’m upping it.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for my copy of this brilliant novel in exchange for my honest review.


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