Rated: 5 stars
Review by Alan Fox Rogers
Colston Whitehead is one of only four writers have won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction twice.
The other authors are William Faulkner, John Updike and Booth Tarkington. So, in every sense, Colston is a literary heavyweight.
Yet Harlem Shuffle, which Whitehead said he wrote for “fun as a love letter to Harlem,” is a light hearted, crime drama set in New York in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Beautifully written, it consists of three interrelated stories that feature Ray Carney, his extended family and associates.
Carney owns a furniture store in downtown Harlem and unlike his father Mike, who was a professional criminal, Ray is “only slightly bent when it came to being crooked.” Being a Negro shop owner in New York in the 1950s is not easy, and occasionally Carney sells TVs and goods that have fallen off the back of a lorry or come into his possession via other nefarious ways.
All of which mean that despite his love of furniture, his entrepreneurial spirit and his accounting degree, Ray Carney is in reality a part time fence.
Harlem Shuffle is about his dealings and contacts within the rich, dark underbelly of that part of the city, while keeping up the façade of being an honest business and family man.
Despite the book containing multiple high jinks, robberies and the occasional murder which leave the reader constantly wondering how or even if Carney and his business will survive, it is the cast of characters that make this novel sing.
Starting with Carney the likeable rogue, who is as devious as he is honest, they include Carney’s hapless cousin Freddie – the source of much of Carnie’s angst.
The formidable Auntie Millie, who raised both Carney and Freddie. Pepper, his father’s long-term associate and Carney’s somewhat reluctant muscle. Aronowitz, the electrical repair man and one of Carney’s occasional suppliers of stolen goods. Chink Montague, the gangster with whom Carney crosses swords; and Munson, the bent cop and bagman, to whom Carney pays a weekly envelope.
Each of these people have been nursed, suckled and raised in the myopic, dysfunctional world of Harlem. A place which has the capacity to surprise even a local like Carney himself.
‘This tour with Munson on his rounds took Carney to places he saw every day, establishments on his doorstep, places he’d walked past ever since he was a kid and exposed them as fronts.
The doorways were entrances into different cities – no, entrances into one vast, secret city. Ever close, adjacent to all you know, just underneath. If you know where to look.’
When Annie gave me Harlem Shuffle to read, she said: ‘I think you’ll enjoy this’ and I did.
Primarily because it did what all great literature should do and transported me to a world where the smells, the landscape and the action are completely different from my normal reality. Plus, it gave me a few laughs along the way.
If you enjoyed this review, you can find other book reviews by Fox on his blog alanfoxrogers.wordpress.com