Can’t Shake the Underworld in ‘Harlem’

Morally gray characters are a special breed of protagonists (or antagonists). Their actions are one thing, but the reasons creators give for those actions are often far more interesting. In the case of Harlem Shuffle, Colson Whitehead keeps his main character’s reasons simple: money, and a racist social system set up against him. As easy as it is to define why Raymond Carney does what Raymond Carney does, it never feels obvious and I hadn’t the faintest idea of how the book would end until the very last page.

Raymond—or “Ray,” but mostly just “Carney”—is a young entrepreneur trying desperately to escape the cloud of his father’s lengthy criminal career. He’s got a good start to it, running a used and new furniture store on the up and up. New businesses take time to really be profitable, which his in-laws don’t seem to understand, and things are a little extra rough when we meet Carney because he’s got a whole lot of nice radio sets to sell when all his customers seem to be more interested in televisions. Still, he believes in his little store.

Then, his cousin Freddie shows up asking for a favor—rather, telling Carney he’s volunteered him for a job. Freddie helps supply Carney with some of his merchandise (whose owners may or may not have consented to it being resold) and they’re close like brothers, not to mention Freddie’s already told all other involved parties that Carney’s in on the gig, so Carney reluctantly agrees. The job turns out to be a heist of safes in a swanky hotel geared toward well-to-do Black people. Carney’s role is to fence the stolen jewels. But the crew pulling the heist is not the only one in town and soon Carney is neck-deep in the same world he’s more or less tried to remove himself from.

That’s part one. Harlem Shake is a novel in three parts that all take place within about five years. During that time, Carney performs a delicate dance in and out of crime. At turns, he is a reluctant patsy, a man with a vendetta and connections to unsavory characters, and resigned to his mostly unwanted place on the fringe between legitimacy and criminality. But he is also shown to try—really try—to play it straight, but the world he inhabits won’t let him. His in-laws make their expectations for their daughter and grandchildren clear and Carney can’t provide that without the little extra he has coming in on the side. He tries to invest in his future but the upper-crust people he thought he could trust prove themselves to be worse than the crooks he’s trying to distance himself from. And no matter where he goes or what he does, his race makes him a certain kind of invisible that no amount of legitimacy can remove.

Carney’s story is one quite foreign to my own experience. I’m a white woman, for one thing, and I’m writing this about fifty years removed from the events in Harlem Shuffle. I have little lived experience that mirrors the events here, though Whitehead’s writing is rich enough that that’s not a huge deal. But it seems like just as glaring is my lack of familiarity with Harlem and the broader New York City area. (I assume it’s hardly anything like the aggregate of Law & Order: SVU, Gossip Girl, and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has taught me.)

Kimmy Schmidt, dressed in pink pants, a floral shirt, and a yellow sweater, poses with Titus Andromedon, dressed in a knock-off Iron Man costume, in New York City.
Somehow I feel that this is, if not more accurate, at least not less accurate than Law & Order: SVU or Gossip Girl.

I live in a city but not the city; the Big Apple’s still on my wanderlust list, and with how this pandemic’s going maybe it’ll be safe to travel again sometime in the mid-2030s. Several jokes and references felt as though they would be more meaningful if I had the background to catch them rather than just watching them sail over my head—though to be fair, none were necessary to understand the main plot.

Whitehead deserves every honor thrown his way, and the acclaim he’s gotten for Harlem Shuffle is no exception. I first encountered his work in his stunning zombie novel, Zone One, and have yet to be disappointed. His voice is so rich a soft, like a story whispered not to you but within earshot. That same voice drives the story in Harlem Shuffle; it also runs so insistently through the plot that you must pay attention or you will miss something vital, which I did a few times and had to go back and read more carefully. Whitehead also has little patience for reminding readers about this character or that, and I found after I put the book down for a couple of weeks when real life got hectic that when I picked it up again, I had trouble remembering some of the nuance of the story. Obviously, this isn’t a criticism, but I would advise reading Harlem Shuffle when you can read it all. But do read it when it comes out next month (Sept. 14 in bookstores everywhere!)—every last morally gray choice deserves your due consideration.

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