Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

"He'd spent so much time trying to keep one half of himself separate from the other half, and now they were set to collide."

How do you follow up a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel? If you're Colson Whitehead, the answer is easy. You simply write another Pulitzer winner. That's what he did with his last two efforts, The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys. Each of those books told powerful stories dealing with slavery and racism, unflinching portraits of a nation's tragic history. I adored both novels, and have been not so patiently waiting for Whitehead to write something new. The hype surrounding his first Pulitzer win was massive, so you can imagine the anticipation with which the world has waited for this follow-up to his second. The fine folks at Doubleday granted me access to an advanced copy of Whitehead's latest book Harlem Shuffle. While this new work is not nearly as serious as his previous two efforts, it is nonetheless impactful. 

Ray Carney is a man between two worlds. In 1959 Harlem, everybody knows everybody. To most of the community, Ray is known as the upstanding owner of Carney's Furniture, a modest business on 125th street that sells good quality furniture at a reasonable price. It isn't much, but it's an honest living. Could things be better? Of course. Despite a decent living, money can be tight. Ray and his wife live in a small apartment that the impending birth of their second child will officially render too small. This is where the other side to Ray begins to emerge. You see, he's the son of a well-known crook, the kind of man who is completely counter to the honest businessman Ray has worked to become. Ray's struggled to carve his own path away from the shadow of his father for years, but the need for a higher cash flow is about to darken that path again. 

It begins innocently enough. Ray's cousin, Freddie, periodically shows up to the store with a random piece of jewelry. Ray doesn't ask where the items come from, but he's happy to take them off Freddie's hands. A little extra income off the books never hurts. But then Freddie begins to escalate things. He joins a group of gangsters in a plot to rob a prominent hotel and volunteers Ray to hold and sell whatever loot is gained. The heist goes off with plenty of complications that place Ray in the sight of the worst kind of people. Suddenly his quiet family business becomes the meeting place for criminals, dirty cops, and other lowlifes who call Harlem home. As the novel progresses, Ray struggles to balance the two sides of himself, the cracks between them threatening to dismantle his entire livelihood. 

Harlem Shuffle sees Colson Whitehead writing a story that places his readers directly into the heart of Harlem during the early 1960s. His descriptions of the place and people who inhabit it are as real as any of his previous characters, the kind of folks whom you could easily see passing on the streets as you visit the city. There's a lightness and sense of fun to this novel that wasn't present in his previous two works but don't let that fool you. Beneath the surface lies the kind of thoughtful commentary on race, class, and morality that readers have come to expect from this celebrated author. I hesitate to say that I enjoyed this book as much as I did other Whitehead novels. The opening portions of the book took a bit too long to establish the story for my taste. Still, the latter half of the novel had me breezing through the pages, breathlessly reading to see how the ending would play out. The uneven pace of this one is perhaps more noticeable because of the stellar plotting of Whitehead's last two books. Still, there's plenty about Harlem Shuffle to marvel at. Sometimes a great author writes a great book while other times they merely write a good book. I think that's the case with this one. It won't be my favorite book written by Colson Whitehead, but it certainly is a joy to read. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 33)

This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 15, 2021 and is filed under ,,,,,,,,,,. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response.

11 Responses to “Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead”

  1. The Underground Railroad was something else so I can see why you were excited to get this third one. Interesting about how the character faces such internal challenges and that would be neat to read about that period of time in Harlem.

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    1. The richness of the characters and setting are really what make the book!

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  2. That does sound like an interesting story to read.

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  3. I really need to read Whitehead at some point. I've heard only good things about his books.

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    1. You should! I still think The Underground Railroad is my favorite of his, but the Nickel Boys is still a very well-told story.

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  4. It's that Harlem setting that makes me want to read this one. :)

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    1. Absolutely! His writing really transports you to the time and place.

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  5. While not always successful, I like when authors stretch a bit.

    This somewhat lighter novel didn't hit all the marks for you but still seems to be worth the read.

    Karen @For What It's Worth

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    1. His skills as an author are undeniable, but it was almost inevitable that at some point he would write something that didn't meet the highest of expectations that his books have established.

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  6. The setting of this book is what grabbed me too — it sounds engrossing, even if its not as good as his other ones

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