I enjoyed Colson Whitehead’s two earlier novels, The Underground Railroad (2016), and The Nickel Boys (2019), both of which won Pulitzer Awards. So I was looking forward to Harlem Shuffle. Too bad. I found it available at the library, but when I got started, I just couldn’t get into it.
By Colson Whitehead
Read by Dion Graham 10h 35m Rating: 8 / general fiction (crime?)
Yes, the Whitehead can write very, very well and at first I thought it was just me and the timing and what I expected. But no, that wasn’t really the problem. The problem for me (!) is that Harlem Shuffle is about bad guys as protagonists. There have been very few books I’ve managed to enjoy inside the heads of the bad guys, or semi-bad guys.
This one starts out pretty good but it deteriorates – just like Ray and the neighborhoods. I think maybe in a different mental space I could have enjoyed this a lot more, but right now with Christmas days away, the news showing that crime is being tolerated, or even celebrated, on too many levels, in too many places, and now the pandemic is starting up again, Harlem Shuffle was just not my cuppa. It felt grimy.
It’s the mid-1960s and Ray Carney (like short for “carnival”?) is the owner of a nice little furniture shop in Harlem. He’s proud of his accomplishments and is a happy young man, loving his business, his small family, his friends and his community. But cousin Freddie is a low level thief, like other relatives, and every once in awhile Freddie sends one of his buddies to get some cash in exchange for something because Ray also acts, discreetly, as a casual fence on the side. But he has to make choices and when an ambitious young Black guy wants an apartment on Riverside Drive, um … ? So the games go on because what are the options?
Against his better judgement Ray gets involved in one of Freddie’s little “heists” and has to make choices. One involvement leads to another and we have a series of escapades which turn worse and involve even less reputable “friends” and even associate with crooked cops. This is like a continuation of The Nickel Boys only mostly set in Harlem and the “boys” grown up and getting into adult trouble.
I really gave it a good try but truly, it was disappointing.