Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Harlem Shuffle
by Colson Whitehead
Published September 2021 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
336 pages

Publisher's Summary:
"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 fa├žade 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?

My Thoughts:
Colson Whitehead is one of the best writers out there right now. Two Puliter Prizes say I'm not alone in believing this to be true. Which means that expectations are high for any book he writes. This is the third of his books that I've read and I've been wow'd by every one of them. 

Is this one a crime thriller? The story of a family? An homage to 1960's Harlem? Yes, yes, and yes. And every one of those elements is marvelous. 

"Living taught you,’ Ray believes, ‘that you didn't have to live the way you'd been taught." Sort of, anyway. Ray's father was the kind of criminal that people are still talking about long after his death. Ray is not that man. But Ray also wants a better life for his family - a home that will get his in-laws off his back, room for his children to have space to grow, a view out the windows and no elevated rail outside his building. So if he has to bend a few rules to make that happen, he's ok with that, as long as it's done quietly. You can't help but like Ray. Life's been hard he only wants what every man wants for his family. 

“Crooked world, straight world, same rules,” Ray thinks. “Everybody had a hand out for the envelope.”

When he tries to move up in the world in a more above board way, Ray learns a lesson about the morals of the men he thought were the cream of the neighborhood that doesn't sit well with him. Then Freddie, who has been getting Ray into trouble since they were little boys, really brings the heat down on him. Between Ray wanting revenge and trouble Freddie brings to Ray's door, things get really tense and dark.

It was as hard to read as The Underground Railroad or as heartbreaking as The Nickel Boys, but it is, once again, a reminder for white readers that life for black people has always been just that much harder. That the system is set up against black people and poor people. That there is corruption around every corner. 

You can take those lessons from this book. Or you can just enjoy is as a crime thriller. Or a book about a family's struggles to rise above poverty and their past. Or one of those rare books where the setting plays as big a role as the characters and the action. I liked it for all of those reason. 




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