Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5.5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4.5/5 (for me)

Colson Whitehead is a master of bringing a place and time to life. Harlem in the 60s — this is the story of a man who came from nothing and relentlessly made something of himself. But it’s not the typical rags to riches story with people “managing” to do this and that. This includes all the details of just what he had to do to make it in the world as it was — the pay offs (to gangsters and the police), the loyalties and trust, the “deals” made, the heists, and the constant jockeying for power, influence, and importance by the big shots while everyone else struggles to get by.

Carney is “only slightly bent when it came to being crooked”. He has principles but suspends them as necessary with full awareness. He runs a furniture store with a secret side line in low level fencing of stolen goods. He primarily manages to stay out of trouble except when his cousin Freddie pops up (Freddie’s most constant refrain — “I didn’t mean to get you in trouble”).

Fantastic scenes in Harlem — The Theresa Hotel, known as the “Waldorf of Harlem,” Striver’s Row for the African-American elite, Black Star Travel agency to help black travelers at the time make their way through parts of the US without getting lynched. Some vivid scenes from the 1964 Harlem riots, resulting from the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white policeman. All narrated by Carney with his somewhat cynical (and pretty realistic) worldview.

Whitehead is a fantastic writer — this had a little more focus on unsavory elements for my taste but it was very hard to put down.

A few quotes (out of many):

“Carney took the previous tenants’ busted schemes and failed dreams as a kind of fertilizer that helped his own ambitions prosper, the same way a fallen oak in its decomposition nourishes the acorn.”

“There was a hole in the air where the Ninth Avenue el used to run. That disappeared thing.”

“He reconsidered: The consequences remained, but the reasons had turned spectral, insubstantial. Harlem had rioted — for what? The boy was still dead, the grand jury cleared Lieutenant Gilligan, and black boys and girls continued to fall before the nightsticks and pistols of racist white cops. Freddie and Linus were gone, their heist unwound as if it had never happened, and Van Wyck kept throwing up buildings.”

“Death took Freddie from Carney and mourning returned to him a visitation, an invisible companion who shadowed him everywhere, tugging at his sleeve and interrupting when he least expected: Remember what my smile looked like, Remember when, remember me. Its voice grew quiet and Carney didn’t hear it for a while and then it was loud again: Remember me, This is your job now, Remember me or no one else will.”

Thank you to Doubleday Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Sept. 14, 2021.