Ray Carney owns a furniture store in Harlem and lives in a tiny apartment across from the subway tracks with his pregnant wife Elizabeth and their kid. Carney is doing well for himself and his business is legitimate, but he has deep roots in the crime world. These come from his father, who used to be a full-time petty criminal, and his cousin Freddie, who does the same and has a long history of getting Carney in trouble. And some things never change. With one kid at home and another on the way, it’s easy for Carney to start dabbling in things slightly less legit than selling sofas, so he moves stolen goods for Freddie from time to time.
When Freddie lands in a crew planning to rob the Hotel Theresa, known as “the Waldorf of Harlem,” he brings in Carney to move some of the stolen goods. Nothing about the job goes as planned, but Carney soon finds himself regularly working with the crooked cops, gangsters, thieves, and other lowlifes that make up Harlem’s underworld. However, his dream of being a successful businessman — one who has nothing to do with the world his father lived in — is always there. Unfortunately, his need for cash is bigger than his desire for legitimacy, so Carney gets involved in more jobs and eventually becomes the leader of one when he exacts revenge on a powerful banker who conned him, an event that opened Carney’s eyes and showed him how high corruption goes in New York City.
Harlem Shuffle is many things. On the surface, it is a crime novel with a family saga at its core. However, as readers have come to expect from Whitehead, the narrative is also an exploration of race and power dynamics that coexists with a story about the eternal battle between ethics and need whenever money enters the equation.
The first standout element in this novel is its structure. More than a classic narrative with an inciting incident, Whitehead wrote what feels like three or four novellas seamlessly woven together by the same characters, with Carney always the epicenter. After the Hotel Theresa job, what felt like the main problem of the story quickly morphs into something else — the aftermath and a new job — and then eventually turns into something entirely new. These ongoing shifts keep the story moving forward at all times and allow the characters to become more important than whatever is happening at the moment.
Ray Carney is a memorable character whose struggles are universal even if his reasons for doing what he does are unique. Whitehead crafted a character who delves into crime simply because he wants a better life. For Carney, hurting others is never the point; he simply knows that doing bad things can help him do the good things he wants to do and achieve the upward social mobility he’s always craved:
The apartment door caught on the chain — only Alma latched it when he was out — and he had to knock to be let into his own home. A crook in the morning and this lady at night. He waited. The strange couple next door had left a bag of something foul outside their door and the marks and grime in the hallways stood out more than usual. Sometimes the train rumble moved through steel struts and concrete and into the building and he felt it in his feet, like now. How had he subjected his wife and child to this place for all this time?
As with most of Whitehead’s oeuvre, Harlem Shuffle is painfully accurate and wonderfully unapologetic in its presentation of racism. From the differences Carney observes in the way white people navigate the world to a cop shooting a black kid and emerging from the aftermath unscathed, this novel presents racial tension as it was at the beginning of the 1960s, a time that is by no means ancient history. However, there are also plenty of instances of black excellence — the list of amazing musicians alone deserves a separate essay — and the kind of writing that celebrates the resilience of black folks and the way they learned to operate in a country that never welcomed them. Elizabeth works for a travel agency that caters to black people, and a description of a map in her office perfectly encapsulates this:
On the wall at Elizabeth’s office they had a map of the United States and the Caribbean with pins and red marker to indicate the cities and towns and routes that Black Star promoted. Stay on the path and you’ll be safe, eat in peace, sleep in peace, breathe in peace; stray and beware. Work together and we can subvert their evil order. It was a map of the black nation inside the white world, part of the bigger thing but its own self, independent, with its own constitution. If we didn’t help one another we’d be lost out there.
Harlem Shuffle is memorable because of the way it brings together a family saga, a heist novel, and a superb, meticulously researched depiction of street life in 1960s Harlem. However, Ray Carney is what most readers will remember the most. He is a normal man who ends up involved in some very peculiar situations while trying to change his life, and in that he resembles every person who has ever done so, which means his victories are like ours, and so are his failures: “The mistake was to believe he’d become someone else. That the circumstances that shaped him had been otherwise, or that to outrun those circumstance was as easy as moving to a better building or learning to speak right.”
Colson Whitehead is an outstanding chronicler of our times who also has a knack for bringing the past to the page with incredible clarity, and Harlem Shuffle proves that once again.
Gabino Iglesias is the author of Coyote Songs (2018) and Zero Saints (2015).