Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead: A review
Ray is a family man. When we meet him, he has a wife and daughter and another child on the way. They are his incentive to maintain respectability and legitimacy. He is, in fact, considered a man of standing in the community. But there is another influence that keeps pulling him in the opposite direction. His name is Freddie.
Freddie is Ray's cousin and he is the one who gets Ray involved in all kinds of illegal schemes and heists. The book is divided into three sections; one is set in 1959, one in 1961, and one in 1964. The first one details the major heist of a hotel that Freddie sucks his cousin into as an accessory against his will. Ray's self-image as a legal businessman takes a serious hit and his life is changed.
The fictional stick-up heist of the Hotel Theresa (a real hotel in Harlem) goes off without a hitch. The hotel is described as "the headquarters of the Negro world" so robbing it is a headline event. The description of this caper is the high point of the book. Whitehead seems to be enjoying writing it. The prose is crisp and often gleeful and downright funny. I found the two following sections of the book to be somewhat less dynamic.
In the second section, Carney is steaming over being cheated out of $500 by a sleazy Harlem banker and most of the action involves him scheming of a way to exact revenge against the banker. In the third section, Carney's moral struggles continue as he is once again involved by Freddie as an unwilling accomplice in a crime that will have tragic consequences for some of his loved ones.
Whitehead, the double Pulitzer Prize winner, has always delivered novels that are original and quirky and are notable as expansions of whatever genre they might be assigned to. So it is with Harlem Shuffle. It is essentially a crime saga but it also manages to embody cultural satire and it is a page-turning, entertaining literary novel.
And now I must confess: I finished reading this book two weeks ago and when I sat down to write my review today, I found I really couldn't remember much about it. I'm not sure what that says about this book or about me as a reader; nothing good about either, I expect. I had to resort to reading the publisher's synopsis and some of the reviews of the book to jog my memory. I can't really explain why that would be because I did enjoy the book while I was reading it, but I never really felt "connected" to any of the characters. There were no female characters or at least none of consequence and perhaps that's why it was hard for me to identify with the male characters.
So, the plot of the book was not particularly memorable for me for whatever reason. I could actually better remember The Nickel Boys. Now we only have to wait for Colson Whitehead to collect his third Pulitzer for this "unmemorable" book.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars