Review: Harlem Shuffle, Colson Whitehead


Review: Harlem Shuffle, Colson WhiteheadHarlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
Narrator: Dion Graham
Published by Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group on September 14, 2021
Genres: Historical Fiction
Length: 10 hours and 36 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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From two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead, a gloriously entertaining novel of heists, shakedowns, and rip-offs set in Harlem in the 1960s.

"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 listen to, another dazzling novel from the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning Colson Whitehead.

After two back-to-back Pulitzer award-winning novels, Colson Whitehead seems like he wanted to have a little bit of fun. And who could blame him? The subject matter of both The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys is so heavy. As he does in those previous novels, however, Whitehead brings the setting to vivid life. A couple of times, I laughed out loud as I listened to this one. Yet there were also moments when Whitehead’s virtuosity as a writer was fully displayed. Frankly, this one would make a great film, and I kind of hope it gets made.

As well drawn as Ray Carney is, I think perhaps Freddie and Pepper were my favorite characters, but the book is peopled with many memorable (and lovable) characters. I loved the attention to detail. For example, Ray always made observations about the furniture—even when he had a gun trained on him, he noticed the office furniture. I understand a sequel is in the offing, and I’m excited to see what is in store for Ray Carney in the next book.