Harlem Shuffle is a 2021 American novel by Pulitzer Prize winning writer Colson Whitehead. It tells the story of Ray Carney, a Black man living in Harlem with his wife Elizabeth who is expecting their second child. Carney makes his living as the owner and proprietor of a furniture store on 125th Street. However, Ray Carney also happens to be the son of deceased criminal “Big Mike” and has inherited some of his father’s temperament and criminal associates and connections.
Through this background, Carney fences stolen goods (furniture, electronics, jewelry, etc.) though his store and more “legitimate” business connections in New York City. Among the few who avail themselves of this service is Carney’s cousin Freddie, a two bit swindler who has descended fully into the criminal underworld and is only too happy to fall further and further for a bigger score. And is perfectly fine with dragging his cousin, Ray, along with him regardless of the danger and consequences. Of course, everyone’s luck eventually runs out and Carney’s minor forays into the criminal underworld result in dire circumstances that could completely destroy the safe, quiet life he made away from the criminality of his family.
The actual structure of Harlem Shuffle‘s story is broken into three distinct sections. Each section revolves around a specific criminal activity the Carney is involved in, usually through his cousin’s interference. The first is a robbery of the Hotel Theresa by Freddie and his associates in which Carney is unwillingly and unknowingly set up as the fence by his cousin for any jewelry that will be taken from the heist. This robbery and the aftermath is the orchestrating event that sets up Carney fully as a known entity in the criminal underworld and gives him a revolving set of players and shakers, both big and small, from said world.
From there Carney takes on a personal case resulting in more connections, owed favors, and requiring deeper commitment and knowledge of the criminal underworld of Harlem and New York City. While this second case does not result in direct profit or have major involvement by his cousin, the tasks Carny undertakes do have major consequences for himself, his family, and oddly for his cousin as it begins an unexpected domino effect that heavily influences the events leading into the third criminal action and portion of the book. This final section of the novel has Carney taking on the larger forces of capitalism, bureaucracy, and the “system” itself, or at least major players of it, against the backdrop of the Harlem riot of 1964.
Harlem Shuffle is a work of historical fiction using actual locations, events, etc. to tell a story of grit, determination, familial obligations, legacy, and love through a Black/African American lens. This is not to suggest that this is a book or story just for Black people, but more to state that attempts to remove the ‘Blackness’ would render the story impotent and incomprehensible. The color and culture weaved into the narrative through the Black elements and locations is as much a necessity as any character found within the pages. And what an intriguing and engaging story it is.
At its core, it is the story of a man trying his damndest to rise above his station and progress along the path of the fabled American Dream. He is fighting with the past, both personal and societal, to survive the present make a better future for himself and his family. Of course, this is all seen and told through major criminal acts on Carney’s part but is that any different than other beloved tales of underdog criminal enterprises that manage to carve out a piece for themselves. If stories like Godfather or Breaking Bad can be celebrated, shouldn’t this one as well?
So, if you are in the mood for some classic American criminal writings, recommend reading Harlem Shuffle. Especially since a sequel is already on the way.