Cover Image: Harlem Shuffle

Harlem Shuffle

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Member Reviews

I adore Colson Whitehead's writing. This book was no exception to that statement. However, it is not anything like his previous books. The story is very different, the pacing is slow (especially at the beginning), and the plot is very different. I still love his writing and will likely read anything he writes in the future as well. His books always come through and are worth the time. Recommend fully.
#HarlemShuffle #NetGalley #DoubleDay
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This book is *very* different from the other two I have read by Whitehead (Nickel Boys and Underground Railroad). I think that is why I was slightly disappointed, although his writing was spectacular as always. This historical fiction novel is light hearted, but there's still plenty of crime and drama. It was a little slow, but eventually I got into it and really appreciated his rich descriptions of the people and places.
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While this book started off slow for me, it eventually picked up and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Everything about Harlem Shuffle was vivid. I am honored to have been preapproved. I do apologize for my late review, but believe me when I say it was well worth the wait.
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3.5 rounded up

Thank you @netgalley for an eARC of this book (that I’m really delayed in finishing 😬!) 

Ray Carney is a family man trying to make an honest living at his furniture store but he’s struggling to make ends meet. His cousin Freddie wants him to join in a heist, but Ray says he’s not crooked. Freddie calls Ray out, saying that Ray doesn’t question where his goods come from. This gets Ray thinking: he may not be crooked, but he is bent. 

Ray becomes embedded in Freddie’s seedy underworld and we meet a plethora of mobsters who are thriving in the crime world in 1960’s Harlem. Ray questions himself and if he is a good man, comparing himself to these traditional criminals. 

Whitehead is a phenomenal writer and paints a vivid Harlem in this novel. The characters are quirky and vibrant, bringing more humor than other Whitehead books I’ve read. He also brings light to real issues like he always does: racism, police brutality, and classism are all addressed brilliantly. 

I enjoyed this book but the pace was very slow for me with much of the action taking place off of the page. I think the description naming this a heist book made me think it would be faster paced. While I loved Whitehead’s Underground Railroad and Nickel Boys much more than this book, it was enjoyable to read a less brutal book with the same expert prose.
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Getting to know the characters in Harlem Shuffle, the people and the city, is an adventure. The characters and their communities reflect tensions and stresses of life as the characters make their choices and take their chances.
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Harlem Shuffle is my first experience with Colson Whitehead and it did not disappoint. It was a slow read for me because I wanted to enjoy every word. The book tells the story of furniture store owner Ray Carney who is "only slightly bent when it came to being crooked." It is about more than Ray and his adventures though - it's about Harlem itself in the 1960s. Beautifully detailed and descriptive, this book gives the reader a feeling of the city as a living, breathing entity.
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3.5 Ode to Harlem stars

This one took a while to take off for me, but then the writing and characters compelled me to finish. It’s the very late 1950s and our main character Ray Carney is doing well running his furniture store in Harlem. Since his father was a serious criminal, Ray is trying to be on the up and up and run a legitimate business. It’s awfully hard not to give in to temptation though. When stolen goods and jewels just show up at your door, how do you say no? When everyone else is in the game, how do you sit on the sidelines? With payoffs galore, it’s hard to keep track of who all the players are in this ode to Harlem.

Ray is a family man and as the years go by, he is always trying to do better for his family, whether it’s moving to the newest part of town, or getting the best furniture for their own use. Ray is always trying to improve his image to his wife’s family. His cousin Freddie is deep into the criminal world and tries to stay away from Ray and the furniture store, but they’ve developed a lucrative side business. 

As the criminal activity escalates, I really worried that Ray would end up in the losing end of things. Interesting that the author had me feeling sympathy for Ray and thinking about shades of criminal activity. He wasn’t all that bad was he?

Harlem itself was a character in this one and Whitehead really brought this time to life, from stories like Ray Carney’s, to the riots, and a bit about the police and politics of the time.

Overall, I liked this one, but not as much as his earlier book "The Underground Railroad," however, he's such a talented writer that I will read all his books!
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I have read enough of Colson Whitehead to know that not one of his books is "like the rest." It's almost surprising how different they all can be from one another. I read Underground Railroad first, and I thought it was well done, but a bit long and drawn out. Then I read The Nickel Boys and could not put that down. I was sucked in, and then it shattered me. I decided I need to read more. Zone One was a completely different Genre and just not for me.  Nonetheless, I can recognize Whitehead's talent, so decided I needed to read this book as well. Again, this book falls into the "Well done, but not for me" category. I really liked Carney's character, but I had a really hard time following all the shady doings of his associates and how it all added up. The world of 1960s crime isn't really my cup of tea, so I sometimes lost interest. Someone more into this type of crime/action novel might enjoy this a lot.
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HARLEM SHUFFLE by two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author Colson Whitehead is worth a look  - it was chosen for the September 2021 LibraryReads list and is an Amazon Best Book for the month, too. Departing from his previous works (including The Underground Railroad and The Intuitionist, both of which have been assigned for classroom reading), Whitehead has now crafted a mystery story set in 1960s Harlem. The main character is the self-made furniture retailer Ray Carney who tries to stay straight, but gets caught up in a world of heists and double-crosses. For me there were so many elements which were reminiscent of Blacktop Wasteland (which I REALLY enjoyed) that I had a harder time than expected of getting into Whitehead's latest work.  No such difficulty for professional reviewers, though – HARLEM SHUFFLE received starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly.
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I have loved every one of Colson Whitehead’s books, difficult subjects and all, and in Harlem Shuffle he takes a different route, heading into 1960’s Harlem. This is a character driven story, and as such the pacing is slow, but knowing this I did not mind. I love all stories related to New York, and I thought Whitehead did a wonderful job describing what the city and Harlem was like back then, so much so that you could feel as if you were right alongside Ray, Freddie and the others.

The story itself focuses on Ray Carney, who owns a furniture shop and squeaks by making an honest living, but occasionally helps his cousin Freddie when he drops off a piece of jewelry every now and then. Let’s be honest, he makes a decent living, but it isn’t anything to move him into the apartments he wants to live in with his wife and kids.

But Freddie falls in with a crew that is planning on robbing a hotel known as the “Waldorf of Harlem” and just happens to volunteer Ray’s services as the fence. The heist does not go as planned, no shocker there, and as a result Ray’s shop now sees the likes of the Harlem lowlifes on the reg, and sets off the internal struggle of Ray the crook vs. Ray the upstanding citizen. As he deals with this conflict, he begins to see who really is running Harlem, and what he must to do not get killed, save his cousin, and get his score to make all of this worth it, all the while keeping his reputation in tact. 

This is where Whitehead shines, showcasing Ray’s struggle as well as the Harlem landscape and what was going on during that time period. There is a slow buildup to this conflict that is worth waiting for, and the last half moves a lot quicker. I was vested in these characters and so captivated by the story that I read this in a couple of settings. This author is now firmly in the autobuy category for me.

Thank you to DoubleDay Books and NetGalley for the free digital copy to review.
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Whitehead brings the reader into the world of 1970's Harlem with vivid descriptions. Antique technology (record players?) sets the stage for a caper, which quickly escalates into a thriller.
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Harlem Shuffle
Colson Whitehead
This book is a radical departure from Coulson’s other work; an engrossing story set in Kennedy-era Harlem. Vivid descriptions of people, places, and relationships result in a multilayered story
woven together through 3 different time periods.
Ray Carney, a Black entrepreneur with his own furniture store, is making a decent life for himself and his family. He has tried to distance himself from his criminal father, but he is still “slightly bent”, thanks in no small part to his unruly cousin Freddie, a troublemaker since they were kids. “I didn’t mean to get you in trouble” is Freddie’s frequent refrain. He brings a few  “used” things for Ray to sell, but serving as a fence becomes a slippery slope when Freddie gets drawn into a questionable plan to rob Harlem’s Hotel Theresa (the “Waldorf of Harlem”) and offers Ray as receiver of the stolen goods.
Both Ray and Freddie find themselves in dangerous situations, attempting to resolve them at a tumultuous time of civil rights protests and riots threatening Ray’s store. 
Equal parts family drama, historical fiction, and commentary on morality, crime, race, and power, this ingenious work evokes delight, dread, humor, and an attachment to its characters, engrossing the reader. 

I received an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for this honest review
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I liked this book but maybe not as much as the reviewers did. The first 2/3 of the book moved pretty slowly for me. The last third picked up the pace. Whitehead does an amazing job evoking a time and place--Harlem in the 1960s.
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After being so impressed and moved by Colson Whitehead's last book, The Nickel Boys,  I decided anything the author wrote next would be an automatic read for me.

In Harlem Shuffle the reader is transported to 1959 Harlem, NY where we meet Ray Carney, a black man and the owner of Carney's Furniture on 125th Street.  Ray went to business school and tries to be an upstanding business man unlike his father Mike, a shady character and not at all a role model for his son.  Ray is also a decent family man who definitely married above his class as his wife Elizabeth comes from a prominent family.  Elizabeth is expecting their second child which means their small apartment will soon be a little more cramped.  For a little extra cash flow Ray begins to take in a few items from his cousin Freddie to sell, of course the items are likely stolen.  What starts out as only slightly dirty hands soon turns into something bigger and involves a bad element from bad cops, gangsters , crooked politicians and bankers and other bad-seed elements of society.  Ray's job now is to find the balance and survive and that won't be easy.

This novel is divided into tile periods: 1959, 1961 and 1964 and the real life Harlem Riots.  This story is vastly different fro The Nickel Boys, but it has well developed, memorable characters that help drive the story as well as a sense of place that seems to come alive as well.  I thought this novel was different and enjoyable. I liked the way the author captured Harlem, its people, the discrimination and the police violence.  The genre is hard to characterize but, to me it was darker crime story but, it did have more than a few funny scenes.  

This book was a combo read (eBook) and audio download. The audio was narrated by Dion Graham, the same person that narrated John Grisham's book: Sooley. He did an excellent job once again.  These books were made available to me at no cost in exchange for my unbiased review.

Rating - 4/5 stars
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Although a highly skilled writer, I couldn’t connect with Colton Whitehead’s latest novel. His seeming rambling style lost me and I couldn’t connect with any of the characters.
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Harlem Shuffle is not Colson Whitehead’s best novel (that I would say is the brilliant The Underground Railroad) but it is perhaps, even almost certainly, his most enjoyable. While his earlier novels present appalling, horrifying environments and characters trapped in brutal circumstances, Harlem Shuffle offers up a warm-hearted, semi-comic story set in a lovingly recreated 1960’s Harlem and centered upon a can’t-help-but-root-for-him furniture salesman-slash-fence (but don’t call him crooked).   This being Whitehead, serious themes do raise their heads, but mostly this is just a fun novel.

That loveable pseudo-criminal is Ray Carney who, when the story opens in 1959, is expecting his second child with his wife Elizabeth and contemplating the many ways his furniture/appliance store’s numbers keep “not adding up.”  He is thus slightly tempted when his shiftier cousin Freddie comes to him with a heist plan needing a fence, but he decides to pass. When he protests to Freddie that he doesn’t do that sort of stuff, his cousin notes how Ray took “that TV last week, I didn’t hear no complaints . . . And those other things, not just TVs. You never asked where they came from.”  Ray dodges again, saying it wasn’t “his business,” but as Freddie presses him, internally Ray thinks:

Put it like that, an outside observer might get the idea that Carney trafficked quite frequently in stolen goods, but that’s not how he saw it. There was a natural flow of goods in and out and through people’s lives . . . a churn of property, and Ray Canrey facilitated that churn. As a middleman. Legit … [though] It was true that his cousin did bring a necklace by from time to time. Or a watch or two . . . a few rings . . . Not that he added up all those occasions they numbered more than he thought, but that was not the point.

Like I said, loveable pseudo-criminal.  Unfortunately for Ray, Freddie doesn’t accept his rejection (though he doesn’t tell Ray this), and after the heist at the famed Hotel Theresa goes off profitably, Ray ends up ensnared in potentially fatal underworld comprised of men like Miami Joe (into armed robbery and feels “an erotic rush on jobs”), Chink Montague (rose up from simple “muscle” and known “for his facility with a straight razor),  Chet the Vet, Yea Big (gotta love that name), and war veteran and current muscle Pepper (given a choice of jail or enlistment after “the fifth time [he] beat a man unconscious”).

The rest of the novel has two more sections, the first jumps ahead to 1961 and the closing act takes place in 1964. Over that time we see Ray struggle with his image of himself, with how to extricate himself from the criminal elements he’s now involved with even as he debates whether he actually wants to, and struggle as well with his place in Harlem society, this last one involving a corrupt banker and The Dumas Club, an elite group of Harlem power-brokers who look down on Ray for his business but also for his darker skin (as do his in-laws, who mourn their daughter’s marriage to “the rug-peddler” as they call him).

Ray Carney is one of Whitehead’s greatest characters— vibrant, charming, often funny, at times more insightful about his community than himself (though that changes). Freddie and Pepper are also stand-out characters. Harlem as well comes fully to life: its bustling and hustling streets, its eclectic mix of class, its gloried past (at the Hotel Theresa, “all the famous Negro athletes and movie stars slept there . . . its thirteen floors contained more possibility and majesty than their parents and grandparents could’ve dreamed of”) and future gentrification. 

The writing, as one expects by now from Whitehead, is top-notch on a sentence and paragraph level. The dialogue, meanwhile, is often a sheer joy. I can easily see this turned into a film and the screenplay simply lifting much of the dialogue as is.

As fun as this novel is, though, this being Whitehead, serious subjects are also regularly addressed, even if they arrive more as background than as the novel’s focus, as in The Underground Railroad or Nickel Boys.  While criminality lies at the center of the story, a blurring takes place between the “obvious” lawbreaking of people like Freddie and Chink, and yes, Ray, and the behavior of the more “upstanding” citizens.  His father-in-law, for instance, one of black Harlem’s premier accountants” who regularly “bragged about his collection of loopholes and dodges, the fat-envelope bribes pass over in the drawing room of the Dumas Club.” Or Wilfred Duke, the banker called “Napoleon”, a big “muckety-muck”, who thrives off his kickbacks, pay-to-play schemes, and other such “sweeteners.”  As Ray thinks, “Crooked world, straight world, same rules.”

And overlying all of this is the grander theft of hundreds of years of oppression, slavery, bigotry in its many incarnations.  Black businesspeople forced to find alternate funding because banks won’t loan to them.  Free black men and women staking out a life in the new city” having their land stolen from them and their “village razed” in order to build Central Park (Ray’s in-laws were descended from Seneca Village residents).  Black people marking a holiday (Juneteenth) despite the fact that as Ray says, “Finding out you were free six months after the fact didn’t seem like something to celebrate.” The Klan burning down a black-owned grocery store and the white sheriff “suggesting” they might “think twice about reopening.”  And, toward the end, a comparison between the limited damage done by the Harlem Riots, where “only a fraction of the community had up bricks and bats and kerosene” and the destruction on a massive scale of a huge chunk of the city to pave the way for the World Trade Center: 

The neighborhood was gone, razed.  .. demolished and erased . . . The buildings of the old city loomed over this broken spot, this wound in itself . . . The [riot] devastation has been nothing compared to what lay before him now, but if you bottled the rage and hope and fury of all the people of Harlem and made it into a bomb, the results would look something like this.

While I’ve given Whitehead’s last two novels rave reviews, I always recommend them with some healthy caveats. They are tough novels — wrenching, excruciating, brutal and graphic. But while Harlem Shuffle does raise serious social criticism, I can recommend it eagerly and happily with no such concerns.  I’m also, I confess, hoping that Whitehead, who rarely writes the same kind of book, returns to this world and cast of characters and shows us how Ray is doing in the late 60s and early 70s.
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What you see is not what always what you are going to get, and Harlem Shuffle has more depth and layers than I expected. Author Colson Whitehead brilliantly wraps the layers within drama or comedy, as the mood shifts in this portrayal of Harlem in the 1960's. A little bent is a good way to look at Harlem Shuffle and at Ray Carney, the main character. Crooked is described in degrees rather than black and white throughout this deep look at crime, racisms, poverty, and attempts to make it out okay in the world. Definitely a worthy read, especially for those who like the flavors of a good read that sit with them long after the last page has been turned! Well done Colson Whitehead!

#HarlemShuffle #NetGalley

Thank you to NetGalley, author Colson Whitehead and DoubleDay Books for this temporary advance review copy for me to read and enjoy. As always, my opinions are my own and my review is voluntary!
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This novel has been described as a crime story . I not interested in crime stories and I only read it because Colson Whitehead wrote it .

But as I expected, it was much more than about heists and fences and gangsters . Taking place in  Harlem in 1959, 1961 and 1964, it’s a striking portrayal of a time and place reflecting on the racism then and there causing us to reflect on the racism here and now. 

It’s a captivating story of a man who “was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked …” , and in spite of that slight bent, Ray Carney is a character I liked and will remember. 

I received a copy of this book from Doubleday through NetGalley.
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A novel centered around Ray Carney, a furniture store owner in early 1960s Harlem, who gets involved in some shady dealings. The book reminded me of times of Cannery row albeit a much rougher version with its colorful cast of characters. The uneven pacing and abundance of characters lost me at times but it was overall an enjoyable read that touches on some important issues.
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My first Colston Whitehead and while it wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be, Harlem Shuffle has definitely given me reason to read some of that backlist. 

This is certainly an enjoyable story but the flow seemed a bit discombobulated at times, almost like it was shuffled a bit. If this was the authors intention then it’s perfect but ultimately it missed for me.
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