Colson Whitehead is the winner of two back-to-back Pulitzer Prizes for his novels UNDERGROUND RAILROAD and THE NICKEL BOYS, both based on tragic histories – slavery and the murder of young black prisoners at a Florida reform school. His newest novel, out last year, HARLEM SHUFFLE, is the story of would-be entrepreneur, Ray Carney, who gets sidetracked into a heist or two too many. Set in 1959 during the Harlem Race Riots, HARLEM SHUFFLE is a parody of the modern crime novel. Where do you draw the line between a savvy business decision and criminal activity?
Ray is a family man with two kids and a wife and runs a furniture store in Harlem. He claims to be just a little bent, not crooked – selling a few pre-owned pieces of furniture and fencing the occasional piece of jewelry. His father was an actual criminal, and he learned the hard way what it’s like to have an absentee father. Ray and his cousin Freddie are close – raised like brothers – and someone has to keep an eye on him. Freddie pressures him into fencing jewelry from a heist at Theresa’s Hotel – the Waldorf of Harlem. From there, Ray is sucked deeper into a vortex of ambiguity. Who are the real criminals when the police are on the take? When his accountant father-in-law who disdains him, calling him a rug peddler and unworthy of his daughter, finds loopholes for his clients to avoid paying their taxes? What’s a guy to do to get ahead? Ray wants nothing more than to provide for his family, and dreams of moving to the West Side and Riverside Drive. Like the proverbial frog thrown into a cold pot, the heat under Ray rises so slowly that he has no clue until he’s cooked.
The action in HARLEM SHUFFLE is fast and furious and lends high comedy to the novel. Everyone is just trying to get by, after all, who can blame them? Whitehead has a way of making us think we’re looking through a window into another world with his novels, and then shifting the light so that we realize we’re looking in a mirror. But you’ll enjoy every minute of it.
This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interviews on Superior Reads the fourth Thursday of the month at 7:00 pm on WTIP Radio, 90.7 Grand Marais, or stream it from the web at http://www.wtip.org.