In Colson Whitehead’s New Novel, a Crime Grows in Harlem

“Sometimes he slipped and his mind went thataway,” Colson Whitehead writes about Ray Carney, the crime-adjacent Harlem furnishings salesman on the heart of his new novel, “Harlem Shuffle.” Whitehead’s personal thoughts has famously gone thataway by 9 different books that don’t a lot resemble each other, however this time he’s stumble on a setup that can stick. He has stated he could preserve Ray going into one other ebook, and it gained’t take you lengthy to determine why.

“Harlem Shuffle” brings Whitehead’s unwavering eloquence — at one level he describes visitors as “honking molasses” — to a mixture of metropolis historical past, area of interest hangouts, racial stratification, excessive hopes and low people. All of those are someway labored into a wealthy, wild ebook that might cross for style fiction. It’s rather more, however the leisure worth alone ought to guarantee it the identical form of fashionable success that greeted his final two novels, “The Underground Railroad” and “The Nickel Boys.” It reads like a ebook whose creator completely loved what he was doing.

The narrative takes place in the center of the 20th century, and a key story line entails a heist on the Hotel Theresa (Harlem’s reply to the Hotel Pierre in Midtown, which was in reality robbed in 1972). The Theresa was so glamorous, such a magnet for Black royalty, that violating it “was like slipping Jackie Robinson a Mickey the night before the World Series,” Whitehead writes. The theft offers Whitehead a lot to play with from a plot perspective, and permits him to evoke a ravishing misplaced landmark in the method.

Meet the rogues’ gallery Whitehead has dreamed up for this: There is Miami Joe, the purple-suited dope who plans the heist; Chink Montague, the gangster who was staying there with a starlet and is peeved that her necklace has vanished from the secure; Chet the Vet and Yea Big, Montague’s enforcers; and Cousin Freddie, who by no means met a crime he didn’t like. Then there’s Ray, who inevitably will get caught up in all of this. Ray runs Carney’s Furniture, however he’s OK with sometimes fencing jewellery on the facet. He’s a liminal legal.

Whitehead names the second of this ebook’s three sections “Dorvay.” In a convoluted approach, that phrase signifies division — it comes from a mishearing of the French “dorveille,” referring to a interval of wakefulness in the midnight — and it sums up a big theme at play in the novel. It’s not simply that Ray plies two trades or is each household man and nascent criminal; it’s that nearly each place and particular person in “Harlem Shuffle” can go someway, relying on what’s expedient. The creator creates a regular, suspenseful churn of occasions that nearly forces his characters to do what they do. The last alternative is theirs, after all.

Colson Whitehead, whose new novel is “Harlem Shuffle.”Credit…Chris Close

But solely a few of them are fortunate sufficient to know that. Ray is one.

Ray’s ambition drives the story. So does his quiet vengefulness. He’s bought lighter-skinned in-laws who raised their daughter on Strivers’ Row and see him as unworthy. He’s bought a white cop who wants bribing if Ray desires to remain in enterprise. He’s bought the upward mobility supplied by a prestigious membership, although being accepted could rely on whether or not he’s darker than a paper bag — that infamous criterion — and will certainly price him a payoff. Whitehead’s elaborate approach of dealing with this plot thread is motive sufficient to learn him.

So is the furnishings retailer, the place Ray spins fables to gullible younger couples, telling one which they’re taking a look at a couch that was featured on “The Donna Reed Show” and in any other case slinging no matter’s essential to preserve enterprise afloat. The ebook spans the interval from 1959 to 1964, and it joyfully goes down rabbit holes to indicate off Ray’s encyclopedic data about that period’s advances in furnishings. He is aware of which materials might be bled on.

While the Harlem riots of ’64 are underway, Ray is visited by a rep from the corporate he has yearned to signal on with as an affiliate. It’s a white man from the Midwest. Whitehead offers him freckles, a crew reduce and a few seersucker. And for a second, the rioting is extra riotously humorous than it has any proper to be.

Though Ray is an adventurer, making the rounds from Washington Heights to the positioning of the long run World Trade Center to are likely to his assorted pursuits, the ebook’s coronary heart is in Harlem. Its one main journey elsewhere may be very deliberate. The Futurama exhibit on the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens is conjured as if it had been a part of one other world, as a result of it feels that strategy to Ray when he sees it.

“Sure, Carney dug all the gee-whiz stuff in Futurama,” Whitehead writes, but when he “walked five minutes in any direction, one generation’s immaculate townhouses were the next’s shooting galleries, slum blocks testified in a chorus of neglect, and businesses sat ravaged and demolished after nights of violent protest. What had started it, the mess this week? A white cop shot an unarmed Black boy three times and killed him. Good old American know-how on display: We do marvels, we do injustice, and our hands were always busy.” Quaint particulars apart, that is no interval piece.

Though it’s a barely gradual starter, “Harlem Shuffle” has dialogue that crackles, a last third that just about explodes, hangouts that invite even when they’re Chock Full o’ Nuts and characters you gained’t overlook even when they don’t stick round for greater than a few pages. Take Julius, the heroin-addicted child whom Ray and his streetwise mentor, Pepper, discover handed out amongst blackened needles in a once-popular brothel.

Pepper: “Your mother ran a nice joint.”

Julius: “I should have joined the Navy.”