‘Harlem Shuffle’ by Colson Whitehead – The Double Life of Ray Carney


‘Harlem Shuffle’ by Colson Whitehead (2021) – 318 pages


Ray Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked.”

Ray Carney is a furniture store owner. He lives in a good neighborhood with his wife and two children. Ray has had to overcome a lot of adversity to get where he is today. His store has a good reputation, and he wants to keep it that way. But then his cousin and best childhood friend Freddie drops by.

Freddie is a small-time crook and gangster who keeps trying to drag Ray into his crooked schemes and the shady world of Ray’s now-dead father.

The rich white guys are also committing crimes to capture and hang on to their fortunes, but they usually are not held accountable for their criminal acts.

Crooked world, straight world, same rules – everybody had their hand out for the envelope.”

‘Harlem Shuffle’ takes place during the late 1950s and early 1960s. This is a vivid time, and the novel captures the excitement. The Hotel Theresa in Harlem is where all the black sports and show business stars stayed when they came to New York. Most of the other hotels in the city were segregated or at least did not welcome black people with open arms.

Even the waitress in the Hotel cafe has been a dancer on stage.

Certainly she hadn’t quit show business, waitressing being a line of work where you had to play to even the cheapest of seats.”

Ray’s in-laws are part of the upper crust of Harlem society, his father-in-law a member of the venerable Dumas Club.

Listening to his father-in-law gloat about screwing over the government had taught Carney about rich people and how they hold on to their money.”

Ray’s wife Elizabeth works for the Black Star Travel Agency which gives advice to black people on where they can’t stay and those few places where they can stay and where they can avoid trouble from the KKK, other white supremacists and assorted other angry white people.

One character in particular here stood out for me, a criminal acquaintance of Freddie named Pepper who has a “malevolent aplomb”.

I first started reading Colson Whitehead with his first novel ‘The Intuitionist’ which is one of the most unusual novels I have read, and I have kept up with his novels since then. ‘Harlem Shuffle’ can be considered a novel of the crime genre, but Whitehead’s natural audacious tone and his fine accumulation of meaningful details make it another fine addition to his oeuvre of work.

‘Harlem Shuffle’ is a wildly adventurous ride through the Harlem underworld and upper world, violent and gruesome at times, but told with an edge of humor.


Grade:    A



5 responses to this post.

  1. “The rich white guys are also committing crimes to capture and hang on to their fortunes, but they usually are not held accountable for their criminal acts.” This is even more true now that we can see the tax-avoiders listed in the Pandora Papers.

    Liked by 2 people


  2. Hi Tony! Enjoyed the review, particularly as I’ve been sitting on the fence about whether to read this or not. The only other novel I’ve read by Whitehead was The Underground Railroad, which I loved but . . . it was a searing emotional experience. I have copies of both The Intuitionist, which looks fascinating, as well as The Nickel Boys, but haven’t quite had the emotional/intellectual energy to take on either. Harlem Shuffle, however, sounds like it might suit my current mood.
    On a different subject — do you have any plans to tackle Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads, due out tomorrow I believe? The buzz on it is tremendous. I have mixed, but mostly positive feelings about Franzen, and must admit I’m looking forward to it.

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Janakay,
      As I highlighted in my previous post, there are quite a few many-page novels coming out right now. I guess the two I most want to read are the Amor Towles and the Anthony Doerr. I note that I really liked ‘The Corrections’ and ‘Freedom’ before, but somehow Franzen, probably wrongly, seems “old hat” to me.

      Liked by 1 person


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