Harlem Shuffle – Colson Whitehead (Fleet 2021)

Colson Whitehead’s reputation as one of the greatest living American writers took off with his last two novels which both won the Pulitzer Prize making him only the 4th writer to win this most prestigious Fiction award twice (alongside William Faulkner, John Updike and Booth Tarkington) and the only Black American to do so to date.

The Underground Railroad”(2016) was the book that took him to the big league- I still cannot understand how it did not win the 2017 Man Booker Prize describing it thus “It ticks all the boxes for me, an involving, entertaining, well-written, imaginative, educational, unpredictable read.”.  I still feel aggrieved by the panel awarding the big prize to “Lincoln In The Bardo” with Whitehead failing to make the transition from longlist to shortlist.  I still haven’t watched the adaptation of this currently on Amazon Prime in the UK. 

Pulitzer Prize number 2 came with “The Nickel Boys” (2019) which focused on a boy’s reform school.  This was a more straightforward narrative which managed to both please and slightly disappoint me so I ranked it four stars.

This latest, his 8th novel is more understated than his two big-hitters but he is now at a point of his career where each publication is a big literary event.  Set in late 50’s/early 60’s Harlem it feels what I imagine Chester Himes to read like (I’ve never read him but I did recently buy “A Rage In Harlem” (1957) so it’s only a matter of time) with greater awareness of the history between now and then and the significance of civil rights unrest.  Here this unrest provides a backdrop more than a focus for the novel and in fact is seen at best as an inconvenience by the characters.

Main character Raymond Carney’s focus is furniture, a salesman with his own store. His desire is to become the first black shop-owner allowed to stock branded items previously only available in white-owned stores.  Carney is doing okay, he is employing staff and looking towards expansion but the start-up money derived from wrong-doings from his largely absent now deceased father and that association causes Carney problems.  Fencing stolen goods becomes part of his trade yet (and this will become the most quoted phrase from this novel) “Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked.”

The influence of family leads to Carney becoming involved in a heist at a hotel frequented by a black clientele which begins a slippery slope.  What begins as a crime caper becomes darker as Carney becomes obsessed by revenge whist always trying to separate the personal from his business life.

Carney is a great character and he comes up against a number of other memorable creations here but I found plot development a little stop-start and the novel does not flow as well as I would have hoped.  I actually found it hard to retain what had been going on.  There’s a tendency to introduce something then backtrack as to how it happens, but this introduction caused me to feel like I’d missed out on something and started leafing back when there was no need as the author hadn’t got to that bit yet.  The plot seems too content to just simmer along, there were points when the pace accelerated and then the book really takes off. 

There’s nothing wrong with this novel and it’s totally right that an author should be allowed to move back from creating the extraordinary to do something which feels less momentous but it is not up there with his best.  I think my own expectations might have let me down here.  I’d been looking forward to the publication of this since the start of the year when I highlighted as a must-read for 2021 and that is probably the reason why it feels for me just a touch disappointing.

Harlem Shuffle will be published on 14th Sept 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.