Published July 2023 by Doubleday
It’s 1971. Trash piles up on the streets, crime is at an all-time high, the city is careening towards bankruptcy, and a shooting war has broken out between the NYPD and the Black Liberation Army. Amidst this collective nervous breakdown furniture store owner and ex-fence Ray Carney tries to keep his head down and his business thriving. His days moving stolen goods around the city are over. It’s strictly the straight-and-narrow for him — until he needs Jackson 5 tickets for his daughter May and he decides to hit up his old police contact Munson, fixer extraordinaire. But Munson has his own favors to ask of Carney and staying out of the game gets a lot more complicated – and deadly.
1973. The counter-culture has created a new generation, the old ways are being overthrown, but there is one constant, Pepper, Carney’s endearingly violent partner in crime. It’s getting harder to put together a reliable crew for hijackings, heists, and assorted felonies, so Pepper takes on a side gig doing security on a Blaxploitation shoot in Harlem. He finds himself in a freaky world of Hollywood stars, up-and-coming comedians, and celebrity drug dealers, in addition to the usual cast of hustlers, mobsters, and hit men. These adversaries underestimate the seasoned crook – to their regret.
1976. Harlem is burning, block by block, while the whole country is gearing up for Bicentennial celebrations. Carney is trying to come up with a July 4th ad he can live with. (“Two Hundred Years of Getting Away with It!”), while his wife Elizabeth is campaigning for her childhood friend, the former assistant D.A and rising politician Alexander Oakes. When a fire severely injures one of Carney’s tenants, he enlists Pepper to look into who may be behind it. Our crooked duo have to battle their way through a crumbling metropolis run by the shady, the violent, and the utterly corrupted.
My first Colson Whitehead book was his masterpiece The Underground Railroad. Of it I said, "It is the rare book that more than lives up to the hype that has swirled around it." Here's the thing about Whitehead: it is not a rare thing at all for his books to live up to the hype. Crook Manifesto is the fourth book by Whitehead I've read and I'm astonished by his ability to...well, I'm just astonished by his ability.
Crook Manifesto is a follow up to Whitehead's Harlem Shuffle (my review here). We're again brought into the world of Ray Carney, furniture store owner who has worked hard, since we last met him, to stay on the up-and-up. In this book, Whitehead has broken his story into three different years that show the decline of Harlem and New York City in general. In the first act, we're again brought into the world of Ray Carney, furniture store owner who has worked hard, since we last met him, to stay on the up-and-up.
In typical Ray fashion, and in a bid to be a good dad and connect with his daughter, in the first act of this book, Ray finds himself once again involved in the tough life of Harlem. Also in typical Ray fashion, he finds a way out. Things we love about Ray: 1) he tries very hard to be a better father than his own father was (not all that tough), 2) he wants to be a good man but life in 1970's Harlem makes that difficult, and 3) Ray always seems to find a way out.
Act two finds Ray taking a step back in the action, when Hollywood comes to Harlem via a wealthy arsonist named Zippo who has dreams of being a famous director. Here readers are reintroduced to Ray's friend Pepper, a thug who does what needs to be done. Pepper has been hired as a guard on set but is called in to find the leading lady when she goes missing. Pepper solves problems in the way you would expect a thug to solve them but it always seems appropriate to the situation. In the end both Zippo and Pepper will find themselves back the worlds they come from.
In the third act, both men must work together, facing both the so-called underbelly of Harlem and the elite.
Violent? Yes, all of the Whitehead books that I've read are very violent. As a general rule, I'm not a fan of violence in books but in Whitehead's books it feels very necessary to set the tone, to force the reader to accept the reality of the world he's created. Genre? Yeah, Whitehead's book defy genre. Is it a crime novel? Yes...and no. Crime drives the action but this is a book about family and community. I was so impressed with Whitehead's ability to put me right into 1960's Harlem in Harlem Shuffle and he's done it again here. Within pages I was envisioning 1970's New York City, remembering images of that time from watching the news when I was growing up. Whitehead is unparalleled in his ability to do that.
"It was a glorious June morning. The sun was shin gin, the birds were signing, the ambulances were screaming, and the daylight falling on last night's crime scenes made the blood twinkle like dew in a green heaven. Summer in New York that bicentennial year was full of promise and menace in every sign and wonder, no matter how crummy or small."
The reviewer in The Atlantic said that Whitehead had lost the plot in this book. Now, I know that that reviewer is a professional but I feel like he missed the point. The plot is there, just not in the way we would typically see it. It's one of the reasons that I loved this book. It was, as Whitehead's books so often are, unexpected and, for me, perfect.