Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Review by David Starkey

Let’s be honest: after writing two of the best novels of the twenty-first century—The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys—it was going to be hard for Colson Whitehead to keep that momentum going with his latest effort, Harlem Shuffle, and it’s not surprising that the new book doesn’t quite live up to its predecessors. Then again, what novel could?

All caveats aside, Harlem Shuffle is an accomplished book, one that becomes more engrossing the deeper a reader goes into its world. In fact, though it’s only a little over 300 pages, Harlem Shuffle has something of the sweep of a Victorian novel. Years pass. The mighty fall. Eccentric characters appear, disappear, then reemerge. Whitehead’s knack for conveying the granular detail of bygone eras—in this case, Harlem of the late ‘50s through the middle ‘60s—makes the past feel imminently, sometimes scarily, present.

The book is divided into three sections that might have stood alone as novellas, but for the protagonist, full-time furniture salesman and part-time crook, Raymond Carney, who binds the narratives together. Each part has a clear conflict generated by Ray’s irascible cousin Freddie, and each time Ray, a wily fixer who relies on words and stratagems rather than fists and firearms, must do the heavy-lifting to keep the problem from blowing up his life.

As Ray’s chief antagonist, the louche Freddie, whose motto is “I didn’t mean to get you into trouble,” comes across far more annoying and troublesome than charming, but clearly that’s Whitehead’s point. As boys, Ray and Freddie were inseparable, each burdened with an unavailable and violent father. Yet for Ray—like so many of the characters in the book—family is where you turn when the vicious, usually white world shows up, one hand reaching out for money while the other fiddles in the pocket of a trench coat, fingering a gun. Freddie is far from perfect, but he’s worth trying to save.

If Harlem Shuffle doesn’t quite measure up to Whitehead’s best work, that’s partly due to the way the book’s genres sometimes elbow up against one another. Just when you think it’s a crime novel, Whitehead slows down and rhapsodizes about a childhood memory or a particular block in Harlem. Then when the novel seems to be settling into a family saga, noirish trouble rears up and pistol-whips you. It’s not a major problem, and The Underground Railroad certainly veered wildly from one tone and setting to another, but a reader can’t help but feel Whitehead never quite made up his mind about exactly what sort of novel he wanted Harlem Shuffle to be.

Nevertheless, the book pulls its disparate threads together beautifully in the final chapter. Harlem Shuffle ends with Ray at the World Trade Center site, seeing it from the other side of history. The neighborhood on which the buildings are about to be erected has “been demolished and erased…down to the street signs and traffic lights. This was the aftermath of a ruinous battle.”  Ray ruminates on the destruction: “if you bottled the rage and hope and fury of all the people in Harlem and made it into a bomb, the results would look something like this.” Those heightened emotions are evident everywhere in Harlem Shuffle, waiting, clearly, to explode.