“Sometimes he slipped and his mind was gone,” writes Colson Whitehead of Ray Carney, the Harlem furniture salesman adjacent to the crime at the center of his new novel, “Harlem Shuffle.” Whitehead’s Spirit is famous for coming through nine other books that aren’t much alike, but this time he found a setup that will hold up. He said he could keep Ray in another book, and it won’t take you long to figure out why.
“Harlem Shuffle” brings Whitehead’s steadfast eloquence – at one point he describes traffic as “honking molasses” – to a mix of city history, niche hangouts, racial stratification, great hopes and weak individuals. All of this is sort of worked into a rich, wild book that might pass for genre fiction. It’s much more, but the entertainment value alone should secure him the same kind of popular success that hosted his last two novels, “The Underground Railroad” and “The Nickel Boys”. It reads like a book whose author really enjoyed what he was doing.
The narrative takes place in the mid-20th century, and a key story involves a heist at the Theresa Hotel (Harlem’s response to the Pierre Hotel in Midtown, which was actually broken into in 1972). The Theresa was so glamorous, such a magnet for black royalty, that raping her “was like dragging Jackie Robinson to Mickey on the eve of the World Series,” Whitehead writes. The flight gives Whitehead a lot to play with from a plot point of view and allows him to conjure up a delightful landmark lost in the process.
Meet the gallery of thugs Whitehead imagined for it: there’s Miami Joe, the dope in the purple suit who’s planning the heist; Chink Montague, the gangster who was staying there with a starlet and is annoyed that his necklace was missing from the safe; Chet the vet and Yea Big, Montague’s henchmen; and Cousin Freddie, who never encountered a crime he didn’t like. Then there’s Ray, who inevitably gets caught up in it all. Ray runs Carney’s Furniture, but he’s okay with occasionally fencing jewelry on the side. He is a preliminary criminal.
Whitehead names the second of the three sections of this book “Dorvay”. In a convoluted way, this word means division – it comes from a bad hearing of the French “dorveille”, referring to a period of awakening in the middle of the night – and it sums up a huge theme at play in the novel. It’s not just that Ray has two trades or is both a father and a fledgling crook; it’s that almost every place and every person in Harlem Shuffle can go one way or the other, whichever is appropriate. The author creates a constant, suspenseful whirlwind of events that almost forces his characters to do what they’re doing. The final choice is theirs, of course.
But only a few of them are lucky enough to find out. Ray is one of them.
Ray’s ambition guides the story. His silent revenge too. He has lighter-skinned in-laws who raised their daughter in Strivers’ Row and consider him unworthy. He’s got a white cop who needs bribes if Ray is to stay in business. He has the upward mobility offered by a prestigious club, although his acceptance may hinge on whether he’s darker than a paper bag – that notorious criterion – and will certainly cost him a win. Whitehead’s elaborate way of handling this plot thread is reason enough to read it.
The same goes for the furniture store, where Ray tells fables to gullible young couples, telling one of them that they look at a sofa featured on “The Donna Reed Show” and throw whatever is. necessary to keep the business afloat. The book covers the period from 1959 to 1964, and it happily descends into rabbit holes to show Ray’s encyclopedic knowledge of the furnishing advancements of that era. He knows what tissue you can bleed into.
While the Harlem Riots of 1964 were in progress, Ray was visited by a representative of the company with which he aspired to be an affiliate. He’s a white man from the Midwest. Whitehead gives it freckles, a crew neck and seersucker cut. And for a moment, the riot is funnier than it’s allowed to be.
Although Ray is an adventurer, circling Washington Heights to the site of the future World Trade Center to take care of his various activities, the heart of the book is in Harlem. His only big trip elsewhere is very deliberate. The Futurama exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens is conjured up as if it is part of another world, because that’s what Ray feels when he sees it.
“Sure, Carney dug all the gee-whiz stuff of Futurama,” Whitehead writes, but if he “walked five minutes in any direction, a generation’s pristine townhouses were the shooting galleries. Next, the slums testified in a chorus of neglect and businesses sat ravaged and demolished after nights of violent protests. What had started it, the brothel this week? A white cop shot a unarmed black boy three times and killed him. Good old American craftsmanship on display: We do wonders, we do injustices, and our hands were always busy. Aside from the picturesque details, this is not a period piece.
While it’s a slightly slow start, “Harlem Shuffle” has crackling dialogue, a final third that almost exploded, hangouts that invite even though they’re full of nuts, and characters you won’t forget. even if they don’t stick around for more than a few pages. Take Julius, the heroin addicted kid that Ray and his street mentor, Pepper, find passed out among blackened needles in a once popular brothel.
Pepper: “Your mother had a good joint.”
Julius: “I should have joined the Navy.”