Colson Whitehead Reinvents Himself, Again

“I’m not a criminal mastermind,” Colson Whitehead mentioned.

It was an overcast morning in August, and we had been strolling alongside 125th Street in Manhattan, the place his new novel, “Harlem Shuffle,” is about. He was describing the challenges of plotting a scene the place criminals break into the secure deposit bins on the Hotel Theresa, a sublime mecca for Black celebrities, athletes and artists within the 1960s, and make off with piles of knickknack.

“It’s nerve-racking, like a real heist,” Whitehead mentioned. “You have to plan it, and then, does it work? What are the holes in the scheme?”

“Harlem Shuffle,” which Doubleday will launch on Tuesday, is his 10th guide and his first crime novel, and maybe essentially the most shocking factor is that it took him this lengthy to jot down one. Its hero is Ray Carney, a furnishings salesman who goals of ascending to Harlem’s higher center class and performs the position of a “fence,” promoting stolen gadgets for his delinquent cousin Freddy and different unsavory associates. Carney is in denial about serving as a intermediary between the prison and straight realms, however after Freddy ropes him into the jewellery theft, he turns into the architect of extra formidable schemes focusing on a few of the strongest folks in New York City.

“Harlem Shuffle,” Whitehead’s 10th guide, is out on Sept. 14.Credit…Doubleday, through Associated Press

Whitehead stopped on the nook of Morningside Avenue, the situation of Carney’s store within the novel. (“This used to be a fried chicken joint,” he mentioned, declaring the M&G Diner signal nonetheless hanging above what’s now a males’s clothes boutique.) When Carney expands his retailer, he provides a second entrance that goes on to his workplace, the place he receives his felonious shoppers. The separate doorways, a bodily manifestation of Carney’s double life, play into Whitehead’s portrait of New York as a metropolis teeming with aspect hustles, with laundromats and delis serving as fronts for illicit operations.

Whitehead stared at an innocuous locked metallic door on the sidewalk. “What’s under that basement grate? Who knows?” he mentioned.

In individual, Whitehead, 51, is pleasant and self-deprecating, with a disarming, high-pitched snicker. He feedback on obscure social media accounts like @ElevatorWorld (“Yes! The new steel bi-parting doors are out! #summerofhedonism,” he tweeted) and responds to followers with glib nihilism. (When a reader gushed over his 2014 poker memoir “The Noble Hustle” and requested, “What now?” Whitehead replied, “Life continues — empty, bleak, and seemingly without purpose.”)

For all his ironic swagger, greater than 20 years after publishing his debut, he nonetheless typically appears like a novice. “It doesn’t get easier or harder,” he mentioned of writing. “It’s just always kind of terrible.”

Throughout his profession, Whitehead has proven a protean capability to shift into new genres, writing a speculative thriller about an elevator inspector (“The Intuitionist”), a postmodernist satire a couple of nomenclature marketing consultant (“Apex Hides the Hurt”), an autobiographical coming-of-age story (“Sag Harbor”) and a post-apocalyptic zombie story (“Zone One”), amongst others.

He adopted these novels with “The Underground Railroad,” a couple of younger enslaved girl who escapes from a Georgia plantation, which injected a barely steampunk, sci-fi aesthetic into an intricately researched historic narrative. With its launch, Whitehead, accustomed to his area of interest as a unusual author with eclectic preoccupations, immediately turned a literary icon. The novel, which has bought greater than 1.eight million copies, was chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her guide membership and tailored right into a tv sequence by the Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins, and gained the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize and the Arthur C. Clarke Award for greatest science fiction novel.

For many writers, it could have been a career-defining work. But three years later, Whitehead got here out with “The Nickel Boys,” about two Black boys at a Jim Crow-era Florida reform faculty. He gained one other Pulitzer, changing into the primary novelist to win for consecutive books.

His heterogeneous model comes not a lot from an effort to indicate his vary however from a brief consideration span. “It prevents me from getting bored — that’s the main thing,” he mentioned. “Like, why can’t I just do a zombie novel? No reason, just do it. So, with this, can I do a heist novel? Yeah, sure. Why not?”

“It doesn’t get easier or harder,” Whitehead mentioned of writing. “It’s just always kind of terrible.”Credit…Jasmine Clarke for The New York Times

The plot he devised for “Harlem Shuffle” provided a brand new, high-geared narrative engine to play with, however it additionally gave him a strategy to discover concepts concerning the slippery nature of morality, energy (and who holds it), and the social hierarchies of prison subcultures.

“What Colson does with the heist genre, he hits all the marks, the dialogue is fabulous, but as you get further into the story, you begin to realize the depths of what he’s up to,” mentioned Bill Thomas, editor in chief and writer of Doubleday. “You begin to see he using the tropes of the crime genre to tell a much larger and deeper story.”

“Harlem Shuffle” is a extra private guide than his current ones, Whitehead mentioned, permitting him to disclose extra of his caustic humor and misanthropic aspect. After he turned within the manuscript, he instantly began writing a sequel that follows Carney and his prison cohort into the 1970s (“very dirty, that sort of bankrupt New York time,” he mentioned). It’s the primary time that Whitehead, who continually reinvents himself, has needed to proceed with a narrative.

“After the darkness of the last two books, the levity, Carney’s humble charm, is fulfilling a psychological need for me,” he mentioned. “I could explore the world in a different way, that’s not tied to these terrible systems of capitalism and institutional racism.”

Still, in writing about Harlem within the 1960s, Whitehead discovered himself returning to themes which have lengthy preoccupied him: racial injustice, class disparities, entrenched energy buildings that enable the ruling class to take advantage of the weak. The last caper within the novel happens shortly after the Harlem riots of 1964, which broke out after a 15-year-old Black scholar named James Powell was fatally shot by a white police officer. Whitehead had simply completed writing it when protests erupted throughout the United States in response to the killing of George Floyd.

“It was very strange,” he mentioned. “I picked the week after the Harlem riot because I didn’t want to exploit the incident. And then, there we were again.”

Whitehead first had the thought for a Harlem crime novel seven years in the past, however he set it apart to jot down “The Nickel Boys.” A devotee of heist films like “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Asphalt Jungle” “Charley Varrick,” “The Taking of Pelham 123” and “The Outfit,” he needed to jot down a criminal offense novel from the attitude of fences, henchmen and different low-ranking crooks and hustlers.

“Maybe I’m being presumptuous, but I think everyone has their criminal side that can come out and be expressed, or is expressed in tiny ways. Maybe you, you know, steal a pack of gum,” he mentioned. “It doesn’t involve dumping bodies and stuff like that, usually.”

Whitehead steeped himself in novels by Chester Himes, Patricia Highsmith and Richard Stark, one in every of Donald Westlake’s pen names. He learn a memoir by Mayme Hatcher Johnson, the spouse of the Harlem crime boss Bumpy Johnson, which proved to be a trove of recommendations on prison enterprises. He pored over newspaper adverts from the interval to study the value of a hat or a cup of espresso, and studied totally different fashions of safes (“Aitkens took three or four good whacks before there was enough purchase for a crowbar” whereas Drummond “required six to eight whacks,” he writes).

He was deep into writing when he realized he had an untapped useful resource — his mother and father, who lived in Harlem within the 1960s, and raised him and his siblings round Midtown and Upper Manhattan. He realized that his father used to work summers at Blumstein’s, an upscale division retailer the place Carney will get his first job promoting furnishings, and that his father frequented the Chock Full o’Nuts subsequent to the Hotel Theresa, the place Carney goes for espresso and plies the waitress for gossip and knowledge.

Walking previous the Theresa Towers, the workplace constructing that changed the lodge, Whitehead paused and identified the signal that also says Hotel Theresa, which was often known as “the Waldorf of Harlem” the place excessive profile folks like Malcolm X, Louis Armstrong, Josephine Baker, Richard Wright and Duke Ellington as soon as stayed. We walked over to Mount Morris Park, the place Carney dumps the physique of a gangster, rolled up in a Moroccan rug, and wonders why there aren’t extra mendacity round (“From the way the newspapers wrote about the park, he thought there might be a line”).

Born and raised in New York, Whitehead, who lives on the Upper West Side, writes and talks concerning the metropolis with a local’s mixture of affection and exasperation, marveling at its limitless contradictions — the grotesque wealth and grinding poverty, the ambition and dereliction, the striving and corruption, the loneliness and misanthropy, the glamour and dirt. He completed writing “Harlem Shuffle” through the first few months of the pandemic, when a lot of the town felt deserted and hollowed out, silent apart from the sirens.

“I’m describing a Harlem that’s in decline in the ’50s and ’60s. And now it’s gentrified and revitalized. And that’s the city. It’s always being laid low. By 9/11, by Covid, and we bounce back,” he mentioned.

“So the city’s laid low. Everything’s crummy. And then the artists find their muse in the wreckage,” he continued. “If you read the history of New York City in general, there’s fires, there’s yellow plague, wars with Native Americans, wars with the British. City’s on fire. And then it comes back. Then we rebuild. And that vitality, to me, is very lovely to think about.”