Book review of Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
September 20, 2023
Harlem Shuffle starts in 1959 and follows five years in the life of Carney, a man who, like New York City itself, operates half above and half below the water line of respectability. Carney’s legit side is that of a small business owner selling furniture to the local clientele. His criminal side comes from his father’s influence, and from his cousin Freddy, who’s a soft magnet for trouble, but who is family, after all. Carney operates in these two parallel worlds and takes the dichotomy more or less for granted. It’s a rational, inevitable series of choices for Whitehead’s average-man protagonist, even as we watch him indulge in some revenge.
This, then, is the Shuffle: Casey moves down into the depths then up for air again, never quite good enough for his wife’s family nor the Harlem aristocracy, yet never quite bad enough for the hustlers and tough guys who keep barging into his life. All the characters circle around again and again in three sections––’59, ’61, and ’65––and they grow on you, nicely. We want Carney to win against the endless rules imposed on him from both above and below ‘the line.’ The links between unlikely characters are developed well across the book’s arc, emphasizing the tangled and racially hermetically-sealed nature of Carney’s place and time.
The writing is great, by the way. It Shuffles along, smooth, easy to read, lots of early 60’s cultural details that add authenticity but don’t clutter the story. Whitehead seems to have fun in particular with the commercial titles of iconic pop furniture of the time, emblematic of change and aspirations of that age.
This is my second review of Whitehead, and I have to say I loved reading Harlem Shuffle a bit more than The Underground Railroad. Is the man getting better and better? Can’t wait to find out with his next book.
Thanks for reading this review,
Title: Harlem Shuffle
Author: Colson Whitehead