Harlem Shuffle: Another twist from a master storyteller

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsHarlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsHarlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

One thing we can be sure to expect from Colson Whitehead is the unexpected. The double Pulitzer Prize winner shot to fame with the alternate history (and FanLit favourite) The Underground Railroad. He debuted with speculative fiction, later wrote a zombie novel, and his work now takes another twist: a heist novel, in the form of his latest release, Harlem Shuffle (2021).

The book follows Ray Carney, a furniture salesman in 1950s – 1960s Harlem. His wife, Elizabeth, is expecting their second child, so when Ray’s cousin Freddie — ever the liability — comes to him with the proposition to rob the Hotel Theresa, it’s easy to understand why Ray is reluctant to get involved.

The son of crook, Ray’s been forced to raise himself and has tried to prise himself free of his criminal roots: he now owns a used furniture store on Harlem’s 125th Street. But business is slow and Ray has a growing family to provide for. What’s more, Freddie has already given Ray’s name to the criminals planning the heist he’s trying to avoid, and it’s not long before they come knocking.

When the heist goes wrong, Ray finds himself enmeshed in a shady underbelly of the New York crime scene. He is drawn further and further into the crooked world he’s trying to escape from, and comes face-to-face with mobsters, bent cops, hustlers and everyone in between. Ray will face trials that will not only test his character, but his resourcefulness, too.

Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead

The story is divided into three parts: 1959, 1961 and 1964, in which Ray finds himself amidst the Harlem riots. It reads like a pulpy crime novel, with a pace and riotous tone to match. Harlem Shuffle is comical — almost farcical — in the depiction of some of its characters. This caper is a far cry from the more serious tones of The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, but remains just as absorbing and enjoyable.

The writing is, of course, superb. We have already seen that Whitehead is adept at shape-shifting through genres, different structures and time periods, but his prose remains as elegant and captivating as ever. Breakneck sentences and hilarious descriptions (the character of Pepper, in particular, is a winner) all culminate in a ride that is entertaining not only for its plot, but also the sheer enjoyment of the writing.

The pure escapism of the setting is another triumph for Whitehead. Readers will recognise many of the places — such as the Apollo Theatre — but will also be immersed in a New York of times gone by. It is impossible not to be drawn into the gritty underbelly of the criminal underground, and the weaving storylines add to the complexity of the city.

Two Pulitzer prizes in, Whitehead has already established himself as a master storyteller and Harlem Shake is just another string to his bow. There is always much speculation about the next great American novelist; it looks like we might have found him.

Published in September 2021. “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.

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RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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