Cover Image: Harlem Shuffle

Harlem Shuffle

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Member Reviews

This felt like a hard-boiled detective novel from the opposite perspective. The prose took some getting used to, for me, but once I did I really enjoyed it. Ray Carney is such a fun hero and the entourage of characters are well developed and intriguing.

I’ve always loved any story that has a heavy world-building element - usually fantasy and Sci-Fi kind of stuff - and this book has it. Harlem shape-shifts in each of the three parts in Harlem Shuffle, showing the reader the same place from a widely varied perspectives. Whitehead uses real history and fictional characters to show the historical significance of Harlem in the 50s/60s. Whitehead does what all great world-builders do: show us what life in like in the valley, and then take us from there to the mountaintops.

I’d encourage you to read it! Part 2 (of 3) was easily my favorite. I would love a series of books with Carney just doing more of what he did in part 2…all the way up. 

I read this book as an Advance Reader Copy, Courtesy of NetGalley.
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This book just wasn't for me - I was unable to get into either the plotline or the characters. Some will like this, but, for someone who has struggled with Whitehead in the past, no enjoyment was to be found.
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Thank you to NetGalley for the ARC of this book! This is my first Colson Whitehead novel and I will definitely read more. This story is about Ray Carney, a furniture salesman in Harlem - told during three different years. The book almost feels like three short stories but in each we learn more about Carney's early life with a 'crooked' father and an absent mother. Ray is both an honest businessman and a bit of a 'bent' crook. He's a fence more than a thief just doing his best to provide for his family. Colson describes Harlem during the 1960s and creates several layers - Carney's struggle with morality, a social commentary on race relations, a family saga and it really shows how much Whitehead loves Harlem. I enjoyed the novel but the crime element fell flat for me - it felt like we really missed the messy ending to each of the storylines. I believe this is a new genre for Mr. Whitehead and I would like to see him write more!
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Harlem Shuffle was a fascinating look into Harlem in the late 1950s and 1960.  It touched on a lot of topics including crime, corruption and racism.  It was very well written and I found myself quickly drawn into the story.
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I love Colson Whitehead's writing, but there were times where I couldn't really tell where this book was going. Overall, it was a fun read, but it felt more like a compilation of stories with Carney at the center as opposed to a build-up to the main story. There were also some parts that didn't feel pertinent to the story as a whole that I could've done without.
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Below is BookBrowse’s review of HARLEM SHUFFLE, which will be in our 9/22 ezine, with coverage across BookBrowse shortly after. It is written by Jennifer Hon Khalaf
Very best
Davina Morgan-Witts | Publisher | BookBrowse | Direct 408-867-6500 



Colson Whitehead is known for revealing hidden worlds of bald and gritty violence, many times presented in a seemingly sanitized and pleasing package, which falls away to reveal a withering indictment of underlying social and racial ills. Harlem Shuffle is no exception to the rule, presented in a triptych of Hollywood-ready heists and colorful characters and set against the backdrop of Harlem near the end of the Civil Rights Era. We're lulled by the traditional tropes of gangster heists, complete with a full caper crew and surprising twists and turns, only to be faced with the sobering revelation that the true danger was never the guy waiting around the corner to clock you across the face, but rather the ever-present cold and insidious reality of racial privilege and power underlying the foundations of New York City. 

Each heist takes place at a different time during the end of the Civil Rights Era, with connecting themes that explore the experience and evolution of Black America. The relationship between Ray, the main character who strives for respectability, and Freddie, his crooked counterpart, drives the exploration of what it means to be Black in America when one is limited within the confines of entrenched inequity. How does one attain success in a world that is so stacked against your kind? When we're first introduced to Ray and Freddie, as well as a cast of lively secondary characters, Whitehead sets the scene for how simple aspirations for money and power play out within Harlem. This expands into another heist a few years later, which explores a different type of struggle for success — one for reputation and exclusivity between classes. The final and most gut-wrenching heist reveals what true theft really means. Dovetailing with the end of the Civil Rights Era, we see revolutionary idealism become dashed with finality. We see how every attempt at change is ultimately a futile endeavor.

Whitehead is a masterful writer, able to present characters and scenes that draw us in with fast-paced action, while also slowing down to provide enough gratifying and diverting details that allow us to enjoy the historical backdrop where the excitement unfolds. He is cerebral enough to pepper his deceptively simple prose with reflections upon double consciousness, race theory and criticisms of capitalism and privilege. In spite, or because, of its high entertainment value, Harlem Shuffle can hit hard on issues pertaining to racial and economic inequality, and their lasting and fundamental impact upon New York City.

At the same time, while we're entertained, surprised and intellectually stimulated by the novel's outstanding execution, somewhere a beating heart is missing. The novel is so plot-driven and filled with so much, that Whitehead overlooks delving into the rich internal lives. It lacks in-depth ruminations on the motivations of why a person becomes a striver, a deadbeat, or a criminal, and the relationships between these types of individuals. The brief glimpses into the characters' lives where we do see these elements make us yearn for even more, such as the tender, comic and heartbreaking family dinner when Pepper, an estranged hitman from Ray's past, joins Ray's family. These meaningful moments are the sustaining force underlying all the superficial action and escapades, and there aren't enough of them to stave off that empty feeling one gets after a binge. We've just read three successive heists in which people die, disappear and are shuffled about without consequence. And when faced with the utter bleakness of the ending, the reader is left with very little to hold onto.

At the same time, perhaps in making us yearn for these tender, private moments and illuminations into the heart and soul of his characters, Whitehead is teaching us that power and privilege can only be truly subverted when we move away from the external to explore the untapped potential of the internal. The value of these moments is demonstrated by their scarcity.
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Harlem Shuffle represents a shift of focus for a favorite writer who has won prizes for his recent explorations of the African-American experience.  On the surface, it is lighter, but there are undercurrents of tragedy and rage that make this such a rich, satisfying book.  At the center is Ray Carney, a loyal, loving family man with a furniture store on 125th Street, who has more than a touch of the rascal in him thanks to circumstances and dna.  Colson Whitehead has deliberately set his story in 1959, pre-tech overhaul, pre-gentrification of the neighborhood.  There is some gorgeous writing, a lot of nostalgia, and memorable sentences such as "It was a beautiful night to be out i the city and up to no good."  Thank one sums it up for me.
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I was so immersed in the language of this story, I came out of it with an accent!  I loved it and my only sadness is that it ended.  More, please?
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I absolutely loved Underground Railroad, and I have heard many interviews with Colson Whitehead and think he has so much to offer. I could not get into this book, however. I got through about 5 chapters and just could not care enough about the characters to move on. I am sad because I really want to love all of his works. I previously tried The Nickel Boys and, while I think it is such an important story, I could not handle the graphic nature of it. I need to get into more of his backlist, some of which I own. I'm sorry to say I will not be finishing this book and offering a proper review. I really do wish him well.
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I'm embarrassed to admit that "Harlem Shuffle" is my introduction to Colson Whitehead, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author and National Book Award-winner as well.

I'm also somewhat embarrassed to admit that I struggled mightily with "Harlem Shuffle," a novel set in 1960's Harlem amidst a world of heists, shakedowns, and rip-offs and the slightly bent Ray Carney. Carney is a compelling figure who practically demands a cinematic imagining, a seemingly straight furniture shop owner and family man with a family tree that might indicate there's a little bit more underneath Carney's surface than the facts might initially reveal.

Truthfully, while I struggled with "Harlem Shuffle" I expect that fans of the wildly popular Whitehead likely will not. This is a fun book, a more entertaining read, per my understanding, than we can usually expect from Whitehead. I've also read, however, that Whitehead is not one to be easily pegged and we ought to expect the unexpected.

I was never tempted to give up on "Harlem Shuffle." I simply struggled to get into its unique rhythms, a semi-expository, semi-dialogue heavy structure that feels disjointed at times and that kept me from relating with the characters in any real way with the exception of lead figure Carney and a later figure, Pepper, who's just downright engaging in all the right ways.

I tried reading "Harlem Shuffle" in binges hoping I would eventually ride its waves.

That didn't work.

I tried reading it chapter-by-chapter.

That didn't work.

Sometimes, a book simply doesn't completely click and for me "Harlem Shuffle" was such a reading experience.

I never hated it. I never loved it. I found it engaging and I'm glad I read it. I just never felt completely immersed in it, never completely cared about its characters, found myself bothered by the structure, and wound down my time with the novel somewhat grateful that the laborious read had finally concluded.

Again, if that sounds like I hated the book, well, I didn't. In fact, I found enough here that I want to go back and read some other works by Whitehead. I'd simply hoped to find myself completely enthralled by "Harlem Shuffle" and I wasn't.

Have you ever watched a film where you ended up with oodles of narration telling you background and various other goings on?

That's what "Harlem Shuffle" feels like much of the time.

Instead of allowing the story to unfold naturally, it feels like we're being guided toward plot points and spoon-fed narrative facts that don't always feel relevant to the story.

At times, I longed for more pages like the book's closing chapters where whip-smart characters go back-and-forth with Whitehead's quippy jabs and action to induce a few goosebumps.

Instead, too often I felt like I was getting a description of the action rather than the action itself. Side characters, including to a degree the fairly essential character of Freddie, feel more like transitional links on this semi-entertaining, semi-thrilling journey.

On the flip side, Whitehead does a masterful job of creating the culture of 1960's Harlem and this world where even the seemingly ordinary joe working down the street has more layers than Dante's inferno and where working class corruption makes for compelling storytelling.

While I didn't quite engage with "Harlem Shuffle" on the level that I hoped, I look forward to reading Colson Whitehead's other books in the near future.
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Thanks to Netgalley for the opportunity to read an ARC: a masterful book from a masterful writer. The protagonist, Ray Carney, is a small businessman--a furniture salesman, family man, college graduate--and the son of a criminal. He is trying to achieve the classic American dream on 125th Street in the 1950's an 1960's. The book is written in three sections that chronicle Carney's evolution. Carney's intentionally bland surface hides tremendous depths as the struggles with his acceptance within both white and Black society, his association with criminals from his family and their past. The character of Pepper is remarkable--an oracle of honesty in a career criminal. Carney evolves into sophistication and understanding: his desire to better himself through hard work and education is thwarted by conventional societal norms of the era. A somewhat slow start turns compelling and profound. This is a book to be read and reread. Whitehead has written another masterpiece. Carney, the most intentionally boring man in Harlem, is fascinating.
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Colson Whitehead has done it again. In Harlem Shuffle, his new novel, he once more writes compellingly about challenged people who survive against all odds, albeit in unconventional, non-conforming ways. The complicated and absorbing plot; complex characters, most of whom strive to overcome childhood trauma; the time-spanning setting; and a revenge story mixed with themes of family loyalty, love, and obligation combine to make it hard to put the book down. Add this book to your Colson Whitehead essential reading list along with The Nickel Boys and The Underground Railroad.
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I thoroughly enjoyed this book! In Harlem Shuffle, Whitehead uses three separate vignettes to tell the story of Carney through various capers he participated in, whether brought into against his will or instigated by him. Along the way, we meet Carney's family, his close friends and fellow schemers struggling, dreaming, and surviving in early 1960s NYC.

My favorite aspect of the story is how well-developed the characters are, drawn with such detail and insight into their personality and temperament you'd think s/he is someone you have known personality for years. Similarly, the way Whitehead develops the back-story of each scenario is so nuanced you would think you had lived that particular event. The author's style of storytelling really draws you in and holds your attention. This is the second book I've read by Colson Whitehead and I will continue to follow this author and look forward to future books.

I would like to thank the author, Netgalley and  Doubleday publisher for an electronic ARC of this book.
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Reminiscent of Elmore Leonard.
I was hesitant to read this novel since I didn't care for Mr. Whitehead's much lauded "Underground Railroad" but I thought I'd give him another chance and I'm glad I did.  This is an entertaining story set in the Harlem of the late 1950's and early to mid 1960's. It veers from being violent to being laugh out loud funny. Although the protagonist is "slightly" crooked, one can't help liking him and rooting for him to come out on top in all of his escapades.  The characters are well drawn and the New York City of the era is vividly portrayed.  I recommend this book to anyone looking for a fast-paced, fun, yet thoughtful, read.
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This is a beautifully written novel about Harlem in the 1960s that focuses on the character of Ray Carney who seems to inhabit two worlds:  a world of crime (Ray’s father was a crook) and a world of respectability.  Whitehead not only makes the reader feel the signs and sounds of Harlem during this time, but also enables the reader to delve deeply into Ray Carney’s character, one that is somewhat torn between providing for his family in a legitimate way and staying loyal to his cousin Freddie (with whom Ray was raised) and out of jail.

Whitehead’s prose truly sings and his strong imagery makes the story pleasurable.  My only quibble, and hence the 3 stars, is that the novel’s pace seems way too slow, making some scenes and character depictions drag out unnecessarily.  Nonetheless, I found this an enjoyable read.
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Two words: Colson Whitehead!!

As described: "...a gloriously entertaining novel of heists, shakedowns, and rip-offs set in Harlem in the 1960s." 

I was hooked from the first sentence: "Ray Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked..."

Ray Carney owned a furniture store. I loved the references and descriptions of furniture that peppered the story.  He's a family man. There's Ray's history [his father--more of a crook], wife Elizabeth--and her family-whose disapproval [they are of a higher class than Ray] is always on display. And Ray's double life--entrepreneur/striver and crook/lowlife. Harlem Shuffle is an apt title.

There is so much in this novel--there are many interwoven storylines--heists, fronts, local gangsters, cops, riots, family, revenge, social clubs, jewelers, the World's Fair, relatives [particularly Freddie--and all concerned with him], the Harlem social scene and the world in the 1960s--social and political change on the forefront. AND MORE!

I learned that Alexandre Dumas was the "...son of a French army officer and Haitian slave..." before attaining literary acclaim. [never knew]

There were so many vivid descriptions and such juicy characters and portrayals here are a few]:

"He shot up six inches junior year, as if his body knew it better catch up to handle his adult responsibilities.":

Larry Early, a repellent personality ill-suited for retail..."

"In its heyday, the joint had been a warehouse of mealy human commerce..."

"Marie was a broad-backed gal with a short torso and skinny legs; the overall effect was a taper, as if she sprouted from the earth like a tree."

"a prodigious ass"


Recommend.
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I really enjoyed this book. It was both readable, due to the compelling plot and character voices, and beautiful to read. Whitehead is a master of evocative, lovely prose, even when it’s describing something ugly or painful. He can paint a vivid picture with just a few words. And I loved the “Dorvay” metaphor of the second section. (Which is also the section’s title.)

The main character Carney was fascinating, as was his world of mid-twentieth century Harlem. This was a time before mine and I’ve never been to Harlem, so I found the details of life at that time for an African-American very interesting. I had to look up quite a few terms and slang phrases, but I didn’t mind. It wasn’t often enough to be annoying and it was worth it to gain this knowledge. I could often tell meaning from context as well. 

I think this is being billed as a mystery. I would call it more of a domestic/historical thriller, although the pace is a bit slow for that. There isn’t really a central question being answered, unless it’s what Carney’s eventual fate will be. Each of the three sections also has its own central crime. The last few chapters definitely have the pace of a thriller. 

Whitehead has been on my radar since The Underground Railroad. I’m sorry to say  that Harlem Shuffle was my first of his books, but happy to say it won’t be my last.  I am ready to immerse myself in the lives of more of his characters, savoring his metaphors and imagery.
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The Harlem Shuffle was in part, for me, a little peek into the world of Harlem at that time. A crime story at it's best. I would highly recommend, The Underground Railroad and the Nickel Boys,  by Whitehead as well. This was a joy to read. Thank you #NetGalley#Doubleday#HarlemShuffle
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This book has a good premise.  However, I found the book disjointed and difficult to read.  There were so many characters, and flashbacks within the text of current times without definition of when the times were changing.  The in-and-out mobsters and crime circles overlapping kept me dizzy.  NetGalley had asked me to preview the book, and out of appreciation I kept going.  Otherwise I am not sure I would have kept plugging away.  

The second half of the book improved, the character lines straightened out a bit, and time seemed to speed up.  I enjoyed the second half more, though by that point I was more interested to see how the book was going to end than I was what happened to any of the characters.  I liked the descriptions of the 1960s furniture and changing trends.  

Usually while on vacation I can read a book in a day or two.  This book took me 2 weeks, and I read 2 other books in between.  It did not suck me in and I had to force myself to pick it up.  Overall I give it 2.5 stars.  I'd advise reading the book in a paper version, the kindle version made it difficult to go back and check on characters or who did what to who.
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I reviewed an ARC provided by the publisher. Mr. Whitehead does it again! Wonderful novel, so lyrical! His dialog is just so real. The words he uses to describe what his protagonist see, feels, thinks; M*A*G*I*C*A*L!!!
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