I’m in a hospital waiting room, jotting down notes. Two men and a woman also wait. We’re seated in well-spaced chairs and wearing masks. A doctor in blue clinic-scrubs and a caramel hijab comes to the water-fountain, fills a plastic cup and, looking out of the window at the building work below, pauses for a moment.
A nurse calls out “Roy Carney”. A thin man gets up and, supported by a woman, gingerly steps forward. They follow the nurse to a consultation room. The doctor turns from the window and returns to the clinic.
Roy Carney? Close enough for me to consider it a synchronicity, even an affirming omen. The notes I write are on Colson Whitehead’s current novel, Harlem Shuffle. The protagonist in Whitehead’s story is Ray Carney, furniture dealer and crook.
After a soft opening of backstory and scene setting, the book plunges Ray Carney and the reader into The Harlem Riot of 1964, which sizzled in a heatwave between July 16 and 22. James Powell, a 15-year-old African American, was shot and killed by police Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan in front of Powell's friends and about a dozen other witnesses. The riot followed.
Igniting the story in this time and place makes it a forcibly contemporary historical American novel. Police officers continue to kill African American children.
At the end of the riots, reports counted one dead rioter, 118 injured, and 465 arrested.
But not Ray Carney, who continues to develop his furniture sales’ business and gear up his criminal activities by getting involved with a jewellery heist at a famous Harlem landmark, Hotel Theresa. The step for Carney from low-level fence of stolen goods to an active participant in a sophisticated criminal venture is instigated by his cousin Freddie.
Family is important to Carney. His father’s legacy, a villainous one, set him up in business. His mother and his aunt, Freddie’s mother, are hard-working matriarchs who hold Carney’s esteem. His wife Elizabeth and their children, May and John, hold Carney’s loyalty and love. His attachment to his cousin Freddie underscores the novel, right to the very end. Family sticks.
The American Dream of material betterment drives the story. Carney aspires to and achieves a home for his family on Riverside Drive. Driving and striving later secure him the greatest prize, when Carney supplants his patronising in-laws, by achieving the much sought-after historic Harlem address of Strivers’ Row. Carney’s part in his in-laws comeuppance is a side-benefit of his revenge play against a banker who stifled his striving by barring his admission to Harlem’s African American elite.
Carney as a character and the actions of the book place Harlem Shuffle in an American crime novel tradition exemplified by the works of Elmore Leonard and Sara Paretsky. It is perhaps closest to the Los Angeles late 1940s crime novel Devil in a Blue Dress and other work by Walter Mosley. Might there be a film version with younger versions of Denzil Washington as Carney and Don Cheadle as Freddie?
Moral behaviour is complex, venal actions underpin material progress, cops are self-serving and Carney admits to himself that he may not be able to sustain his double life as a furniture retailer and a crook for very much longer. The 1960s move the African American experience into a form of modernity wherein social and class divisions intensify, while race divisions deepen.
Women characters are present but marginal. They are waitresses and hookers, one of whom plays a crucial role in Carney’s revenge caper. Elizabeth’s job in the Black Star Travel Agency improves, as African Americans’ ability to vacation at home and abroad increases, but she does not participate in either of her husband’s commercial ventures.
The history of Manhattan is present throughout the novel. The early Dutch colonisers survive in the Van Wyck family, the real estate magnates who animate the book’s final third through a relationship with Freddie. The Dutch colony of the late 1650s led by Peter Stuyvesant created the settlement of Nieuw Haarlem in the northern part of the island of Manhattan as an outpost of Nieuw Amsterdam at the southern tip of the island. When English colonisers over-ran the Dutch, the name was Anglicised to Harlem. Scant mention is made of the Lenape people who inhabited the island before the colonisers arrived.
The reader is left to wonder at the end of this fine book how the drive and legacy of Carney and his community will play into the future where the killing of African American children by police officers remains.
Like all great crime fiction, this is a morality tale, set pert as a diamond on a stolen ring in a particular time and place. The detailed descriptions of home furnishing of the period are lovingly presented, vivid in themselves and redolent with the desire for material acquisition. Carney gets caught up in a crush downtown, when a nuclear attack drill is called, while he is on his way to transact a deal with stolen goods. He never otherwise stands so close to white people.
The words “crook” and “crooked” echo throughout the book and resonate down the centuries.
Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead is highly recommended.
Strivers’ Row, Manhattan, New York
See also Reading the Nickel Boys by Dave Duggan