Book review: Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Literary crime novel Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead is set in the early 1960s. Reading it was a journey of cultural immersion – full of wise guys and street talk. It’s noir-ish flavour is a study in how our environment and prejudice can limit us in life, no matter how hard we try – and how frustration at those limitations can boil over.

You came from one place but more important was where you decided to go.

When we meet Ray Carney, the civil rights movement is live, but he just wants to get on with his own life and be taken seriously as a legitimate businessman. Ray runs a furniture store in Harlem on 125th Street that he opened using money he found in his dead father’s car.

Carney imagined himself inside because he was looking for evidence of himself. Was there an Argent wingback chair or Heywood-Wakefield armoire in one of them, over by the window, the proof of a sale he’d closed? It was a new game he played, walk­ing around this unforgiving town: Is my stuff in there?

Carney senior, a petty thief and hustler, was a gunned down by police stealing cough syrup from a pharmacy. Ray is as straight as you can be in a town run on corruption, where the cops have to be paid off and the fear of retribution runs deep. Some of the goods he sells have dubious origins – he’s a reluctant fence who innocently gets caught up in a jewel heist.

Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked, in practice and ambition.

Harlem Shuffle exposes the injustices in the justice system and that the line between legal and illegal is blurred. Whitehead shines a light on the false moralities of capitalism and that the founding of the USA itself, like all colonised counties was done through theft and treachery and that we are all complicit in.

There’s us, there’s water, and then there’s more land, we’re all a part of the same thing. But Park Avenue, with those big old buildings facing one another, full of old white people, there’s none of that feeling, right? It’s a canyon. And the two sides don’t give a shit about you. If they wanted, if they so decided, they could squeeze together and crush you. That’s how little you are