Cover Image: Harlem Shuffle

Harlem Shuffle

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Member Reviews

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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Turning his hand to crime fiction, two-time Pulitzer winner Colson Whitehead soaks readers deeply into the milieu of mid-century Harlem. The centrepiece of Whitehead’s latest novel is Ray Carney, the proprietor of Carney’s Furniture on 125th Street – a New York artery flowing through the long-time cultural epicentre of African American life.

Eisenhower precedes JFK. New edifices to industry bulldoze neighbourhoods and alter New York’s skyline. 

At a time and place where local barbershops, dry cleaners, and even cake shops were often fronts for something else – “a vast secret city” laying beneath the façade – and criminals and cops alike did regular rounds to collect envelopes stuffed with cash, Ray and his Harlem store were “only slightly bent when it came to being crooked”. Ray’s a striver more than a crook, looking to earn a better future for his family through hard, (usually) honest work, despite his DNA. So, when his cousin Freddie pauses between highs to name-drop Ray to a crew planning a major heist of a local hotel, he’s understandably reluctant. 

High risk carries harsh consequences. Missteps, violence, death.

After dousing readers in the horrors of slavery (The Underground Railroad) and reform school abuse (The Nickel Boys) in his two most recent novels – both of which scooped the Pulitzer Prize – Manhattan native Whitehead now soaks us in a slice of his home city’s past.

Cold War fears. Growing heroin use. Riots sparked by a white cop shooting a black teen.

Harlem Shuffle is an extremely enjoyable read that delivers a nod or two to Chester Himes, the master of African American noir, as it canters along. Where Himes – who deserves to be remembered alongside Chandler and Hammett as a hardboiled king – told bold tales via Harlem cops Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, Whitehead centres store owner Ray, who struggles with his own identity as events unfold and his neighbourhood evolves.

Unfolding in three parts (1959, 1961, and 1964), Whitehead’s take on a crime novel entwines heists, vengeance, and a wonderfully vivid evocation of character, time, and place. With its serpentine story and zinging prose, Harlem Shuffle is a crime tale with a high thread count.

[This is a lightly edited version of a review first published in the New Zealand Listener magazine]
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NetGalley ARC

"Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked"

I'm ashamed to admit that this is the first Colson Whitehead book I've read.  His reputation as one of the great contemporary American writers is well deserved.  The book follows furniture store owner Ray Carney over brief periods of 1959, 1961 and 1964.  On the criminality scale Ray is somewhere between straight and crooked, he's just a little bit bent.  In the 5 years depicted we see him grow his day business and his night business.  He is drawn further into the dark side of his business either by his own design or his beloved and frustrating cousin Freddie.   

The characters are complex and interesting and the writing style flows well and is easy to read.  Carney is a character to root for.  His father was a known con artist and criminal and was in his life only sporadically.  Carney wants better for himself and his family.  He goes to college and eventually buys a furniture store.   He takes pride in his work and the service he provides the community.  When he not so reluctantly becomes a fence for stolen jewelry he asks his jewelry connection to tutor him in fine jewelry to home his expertise.  That is who Ray is, if he's going to do something criminal, he's going to do it right. 

While the book mostly focuses on Carney, we also get to know his wife Elizabeth, his unsupportive in-laws, thief Pepper and many Harlem characters.  Whitehead also brings in historic details such as the 1964 riots, specialty travel agencies for black travelers, and the start of the "war on drugs."  These details draw parallels to the present. These details draw parallels to the present and how much and how little has changed.
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Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead is a heist story set in the 1960s in Harlem. 

If you are a fan of heist stories, crime, suspense, mysteries or historical fictions, this book is for you. However, for me it was hard to get into. The writing style was a bit too stern and made it hard for me to keep my attention. However, I know the author is popular and this book has gone out many times at the library I work at. It wasn't for me, but I know it has an audience which is always a good thing.
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In addition to a great story, Colson Whitehead's writing is absolutely beautiful. It is no wonder the man has two Pulitzer's under his belt already. Harlem Shuffle is about Ray Carney, a black man from Harlem in the early 1960s, who was raised by his criminal father. The story starts with a heist gone wrong that sets in motion all kinds of trouble with all kinds of unsavory characters. It is as much a story about self identity as it is about the society Ray finds himself in. Ray sees himself as a good man, a family man, with a wife and children and all he wants is to be able to provide his family with a good home. The owner of a furniture store, he struggles between the slow pace of making a buck selling furniture and the quick large sums of money he makes involving himself in illegal activities, much of the time at the behest of his cousin, Freddie. Ray does not want to be anything like his father. This conflict, what is right versus wrong, what is crooked versus straight, is not only an inner conflict but a societal one with racism at its core set against backdrop of looting and rioting that takes place after a white cop shoots a black youth.
The white men just a few blocks up the avenue with their fancy suits and ties are "trying to run a hustle same as you", without the hiding. We are all just trying to get by, some with privilege, some without. As Ray says it best, "Everyone had secret corners and alleys that no one else saw- what mattered were your major streets and boulevards, the stuff that showed up on other people's maps of you."
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I have read two other books by this author and this one was my favorite. This one takes place in the 50s and 60s in Harlem New York. At the center is Ray Carney who is trying to balance family, a legitimate furniture business with some shady dealings with the criminal underworld. It is a murder mystery but is more focused on the characters especially Ray. It was very enjoyable and the writer did a fantastic job of transporting the reader back to that era in time. Thank you #netgalley for a fun read. 
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Thank You to #NetGalley for the ebook Arc in exchange for an honest review.

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead is a slow paced historical fiction that is beautifully crafted. Readers are immersed in the Harlem landscape and cultural from the beginning.  We pick up this novel in the 1950-1960's with a focus on the cultural changes that are occurring with in the landscape. The City itself is a well developed character.  Overall this was an enjoyable read that I recommend to you all.
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DNF around 50%. I wanted to enjoy this, but I just didn't connect with any of the characters and the directionless plot bored me to tears. The writing was well done (as it always is with Colson Whitehead), but I didn't care about the story. I was really struggling to keep reading and finally had to give up.
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Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead is a cinematically-written novel about Ray Carney, a married father in his 20s-30s devoted to his family and his business, a furniture store in Harlem in the late 1950s-mid 1960s. Carney’s father was a career criminal who was in and out of his life and died young. Carney has always tried to distance himself from his father’s lifestyle, but finds himself further drawn into it, even if at a distance, at least in his mind. The plot was a little meandering and I didn’t feel very connected to Carney, but Whitehead is such a good writer that his writing style draws you in. A colorful cast of supporting characters and circumstances make the novel intriguing. Harlem is so vividly depicted that the setting is really another character. I listened to the audiobook, which is perfectly narrated by Dion Graham. 

Thank you Doubleday Books and NetGalley for providing this ARC.
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Harlem Shuffle was my first Coleson Whitehead book, and he is clearly a very talented writer. I struggled to get into this book because of the slow pacing, and I was expecting more action scenes. I also wish the characters had been more developed, but I really enjoyed the descriptions of Harlem. It definitely came to life through the writing, which made the city feel like its own character.
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Harlem Shuffle
by Colson Whitehead

Carney lives in Harlem during the 1960's...he just wants to get his family into one of those beautiful apartments he walk by at night, but he has a cousin that pulls at his life in another direction with more power than he can fully resist. This is a dense novel, with so much detail and the lives in it are woven together like fabric. Will the Carney you meet on page one be the Carney you finish the book knowing, that is the biggest appeal of this story.
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Thanks to Doubleday Books for this ARC.

I enjoyed this winding but smart story.  The object lesson or point of this morality tale was basically that whatever efforts you make to improve or get a leg up will lead to a situation worse than what you initially attempted to remedy.  And thus the story thrusts us into Ray's life as he tries to survive in a bygone and changing Harlem.  The plotting is well laid out and the story is engaging.  The tone has a certain whimsy, almost a farce.  Importantly, Colson provides characters who readers appreciate for their psychological depth.  We get their backstories; we understand their motivations, twisted and ill-advised.  But it makes sense, at least within the book's context.

Colson also spins homey bits of opinion or insight.  There is something akin to affection when some tidbit or judgment is asserted.
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⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️Harlem Shuffle is the first book I’ve read by Colson Whitehead but it certainly won’t be the last. This was a story spanning the late 50s through mid 60s and focused on one main character who struggles with his internal conflict of the crooked vs the straight. Ray Carney does not want to emulate his crooked father and in many important ways he does not however he can’t quite escalate the crooked life. The story was engaging and Ray and the other characters are well-written.  The setting of Harlem in a time of unrest (not so different from the summer of 2020)  reminds the reader of the continuing struggle for justice. I will be returning to this author’s body of work soon.
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Harlem Shuffle is the story of Ray Carney, whose father was an infamous criminal, but who has graduated college and thanks to a lucky “inheritance” bought a furniture business and respectability. Not quite enough respectability for his in-laws, but he’s mostly legit. Sure, his cousin drags him into a few scrapes. And sure, he kind of likes it, but really, he’s a respectable guy, most of the time.

But a bit of fencing on the side is an investment in their future. He sees real respectability in living on Striver’s Row where his in-laws had a home and belonging to the Dumas club, the Black businessmen’s club that identified who was who. When he is denied membership despite greasing an outstretched palm, he sets out for revenge.

Harlem Shuffle is written in three parts that could stand on their own, though each builds on the one before. The first involves his cousin getting him into a jam by mentioning him as a possible fence for a hotel heist. The second involves his pursuit of revenge after being swindled. The last returns to his cousin once again involved in an unwise, too rich for safety theft.

I liked Harlem Shuffle though I really struggled with getting into it. You know how when people talk and veer into tangents explaining how someone fits into the community, sharing bits of history as a way of putting them in context? It’s much more intrusive when written than when spoken. This became less of an issue in the latter two parts of the book. However, even when I was irritated by these tangents, I was admiring Whitehead’s craft.

He writes so beautifully, crafting sentences that make me wish I had thought of that before, with powerful metaphors that left me highlighting entire acres of text. Every book he writes is so different from the ones before. He keeps bringing us new worlds.

I received an e-galley of Harlem Shuffle from the publisher through NetGalley.

Harlem Shuffle at Doubleday | Penguin Random House
The Theresa Job excerpt from Harlem Shuffle at The New Yorker
Colson Whitehead
The Underground Railroad reviewed in 2016
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