Harlem Shuffle: The art of not breaking

Is it possible for a person with a modicum of ambition to be straight in a crooked world?

This may be the central question of Colson Whitehead’s tenth novel, Harlem Shuffle. The world is Harlem, the person is Raymond Carney, who, as Whitehead dryly describes him, “was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked”. What we come to discover through the novel, is that being slightly bent is a righteous achievement when born of a crooked father into a society of crooks trying to survive within an unjust – read racist – regime.

Carney, as Whitehead calls him, is a family man running his own furniture store on Manhattan’s 125th Street, selling “gently used” armoires, radio sets, couches, dining sets, lamps, etc. Of course dealing in second-hand goods means occasionally someone brings in something which may not have been theirs to begin with. The someone is his cousin, whom being blood he can’t turn away, and the something would be jewellery or similar small items of value. Thus, when we meet Carney, he’s a small-time fence less for the money, which isn’t very much because, as we later find out, the guy who he offloads it to is dishonest when it comes to his appraisal of the worth of the items, and more as a matter of loyalty to his cousin who is more brother than cousin.

Of course, matters become more complicated as Carney is unwillingly drawn into an underworld which cares little for his desire to maintain a plausible facade of legality, and cares even less for using violence to achieve their ends, if needs be.

Whitehead, who is a deserving Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, structures Harlem Shuffle as a novel of three parts, progressing from 1959 to to 1964, which, if nothing else, allows him to dispense with the contemporary distractions of social media and instant messaging. Each of the three stories follow a similar trajectory: A respectable, independent salesman, drawn ineluctably into ever shadier dealings, gathering an expanding cast of characters around him as he goes. Each excursion to the dark side of the street has us tense with the uncertainty of whether he is going to make it back. Because we like him. We’re rooting for him but we also suspect he’s out of his depth, having to deal with people he’d rather avoid than emulate.

Despite the apparent simplicity of plot, Whitehead creates depth far beyond the usual reach of crime fiction. With a literary sleight of hand, he moves Carney beyond the cliché of conflicted ingenu, partly because being raised within Harlem’s underbelly strips Carney of innocence. The complexity, rather, is what makes him want to be respectable. Partly, it may be his desire to please his wife, who is a few social floors above Carney’s status (America’s classless society being a myth), although Whitehead falls way short of fleshing out her character, or that of any woman in this novel, for that matter – Carney has to suffice. The depth lies within the character of Harlem itself, which could be transposed onto any urban area where the general population is forced to survive under subjugation no matter how much, in America’s case, that subjugation is denied.

Harlem could stand in for a Jewish ghetto or a South African township; a place where getting ahead, providing a future for your wife and children, involves working against a system that pervasively seeks to prevent gains, whether they be economic, intellectual, or cultural, although they are inevitably somewhat intertwined. What is there to do when your right to pursue modest ambition is stymied, and loyalty keeps you from a singular path? Whitehead’s answer appears to be that loyalty, and honour, is more important than the law. I’d have to agree.

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