“Zips and snaps” – Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

IMG_26Sep2021at201743Two words for you about Colson Whitehead’s latest novel: “hustle” and “bustle”. This is a novel (as the title goes some way to suggest) of the city. New York, broadly speaking, at the tail end of the 50s / early 60s. Two other words we could use would be “zips” and “snaps” because this is one hell of a pacey book.

Packaged as something of a heist novel (which it isn’t entirely or only as much as, say, Steve McQueen’s version of Widows is a heist film), what you actually have here is closer in tone to, say, a Walter Mosley novel (we’re thinking Easy Rawlins) or, curiously enough, Michael Chabon’s best novel of recent years, Telegraph Avenue. What you have here is the story of Carney, a Harlem resident who considers himself legit, running a furniture store that aims to provide his black customers with goods as good as any you’d find in a white store. But – didn’t you just know there would be a but – Carney also has toes in less legit waters, acting as a fence for stolen goods (odd bits of jewellery, the occasional TV). It is these less legit waters, represented to begin with by his dubious cousin Freddie, that gets Carney in trouble.

Harlem Shuffle is constructed around three essentially stand-alone (but lightly linked) stories. In story one, Freddie is involved in a heist and offers up his cousin Carney as a fence. Only Carney is used to offloading the odd bit of jewellery, as we said, not heist weight. And the robbers unfortunately picked up an item of jewellery that belongs to a person with sway. So people start ending up dead. Carney, in the midst of it all, tries to balance his business and his family with keeping his errant cousin alive and, you know, resolving the situation.

Situation 2 sees Carney trying to move up in the world, trying to get a seat at the table of a local club for bigwigs only to be ripped off. So Carney tries his hand at revenge but in doing so inveigles himself in all sorts of who did what now? (The middle section of the novel is all over the place in terms of linear narrative – you just hold on and pray things will make sense. They eventually do, but it’s worth adding that the middle of Harlem Shuffle feels a tad too literary for the story the book is aiming to tell. Sometimes, this reader at least felt, you can just tell a story in order. If you have enough going on, if you’re telling your story well, you don’t need too many other additional flourishes.)

Situation 3 restores Freddie to the fold once more. Having befriended a Park Avenue drop-out, Freddie is involved in another robbery as his Park Avenue friend looks to break into the old family safe and make off with some paperwork and other priceless heirlooms. Carney is roundly threatened left, right and centre and has to call in Pepper, an old friend of his dad’s, who functions in some respects as Harlem Shuffle’s Mouse.

It’s an immersive page turner and, if you had to say one thing that recommends it above all else, it would be this: on page one, Colson Whitehead takes you by the hand and he does not let that grip falter much for the next three hundred and odd pages. He takes you the reader with him. Harlem Shuffle feels like a book written for readers to enjoy. This time next year it will probably be a three part serial dramatised by David Simon. It’s fun but it’s righteous with indignation too and just about as lively, as vivid and as colourful as you’d want from a book firmly fixed in the pivotal space between where the 50s ended and the 60s began.

Any Cop?: Whitehead continues to go from strength to strength. We’d go as far to say that we liked this even more than we liked The Nickel Boys.

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