Posts Tagged ‘Colson Whitehead’

‘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



Some Fiction From the First Decade of the 2000s (2000-2009) That is Too Good to be Forgotten


Below are ten works of fiction from the early 2000s all about which I became enthusiastic and which led me to put these writers in my Must-Read category.


‘The Other Side of You’ by Salley Vickers (2006) – Salley Vickers connects the great works of art, in this case the art of Caravaggio, with the conscious daily lives of her characters in a compelling way. Her novels are definitely literary, yet are as light as a soufflé.




‘Ludlow’ by David Mason (2007) – Here is a novel-in-verse but not with the subject matter you would expect for a novel in verse. The coal miners of Ludlow, Colorado go on strike in 1914, one of the cruelest, bloodiest chapters in the history of American labor. The verse novel strategy works brilliantly to describe scenes that are not always pretty.


‘The Beauty of the Husband’ – A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos by Anne Carson (2001) – In lyrical lines that suggest the movements of tango dancers, Carson describes scenes from a doomed marriage. This is a modern take on the intimate cruelties of marriage.

Three minutes of reality

All I ever asked

She stands looking out at rain on the roof.”

‘The Inheritance of Loss’ by Kiran Desai (2006) – I read much of the work of her mother Anita Desai, and daughter Kiran Desai carries on brilliantly. ‘The Inheritance of Loss’ has depth, emotion, hilarity, and imagination; what more can you ask for?. But why hasn’t Kiran Desai published any fiction since 2006?




‘The Known World’ by Edward P. Jones (2003) – By focusing on a black slave owner, Edward P. Jones avoids turning this novel into a morality play of good and evil. There is no one preaching. The matter-of-fact tone only intensifies the reader’s reaction to this story.




‘Black Swan Green’ by David Mitchell (2006) – This is David Mitchell’s lightest most engaging novel, and it is my favorite of his work.

These jokes the world plays, they’re not funny at all.”




‘Gilgamesh’ by Joan London (2001) – A teenage woman and her young child take an amazing trip from rural Western Australia to Armenia and back. This is a blunt and beautifully written novel that deals with life’s tough truths.





‘John Henry Days’ by Colson Whitehead (2001) – Even before ‘Underground Railroad’, Colson Whitehead wrote wonderful novels. This novel is more humorous and thus more fun for me than ‘Underground Railroad’. Sometimes it seems writers lose their lightness as they get older.



‘Lush Life’ by Richard Price (2008) – Richard Price is the excellent writer of novels that take place on the streets of New York. He lived in a housing project as a child and knows all about the city street life. He has branched out to writing for TV and the movies, but I have followed his written fiction from the beginning.




‘How the Light Gets In’ by M. J. Hyland (2004) In 2004, M. J. Hyland was the new female novelist who burst on the scene with this her first wonderful novel and got much of the attention and some awards. After reading this novel and her next, ‘Carry Me Down’, I put her in my must-read category. However she has not published a novel since 2009.



Generosity’ by Richard Powers (2009) – A likable and passionate novel about the search for happiness and the Happiness gene. And you thought our state of mind was the result of happy or sad events in our lives?


Happy Reading!

‘The Underground Railroad’ by Colson Whitehead

‘The Underground Railroad’ by Colson Whitehead     (2016) – 306 pages


‘The Underground Railroad’ is a novel about the United States’ most brutal atrocity, human slavery.  If a slave ran away from the plantation but was caught, the white slave owner could chop off his or her foot.   The white slave owner could drag a couple of the fourteen year old girls out behind the woodshed to breed them and invite his teenage sons to join in the fun.  The white slave owner could do whatever he wanted to his slaves.  The slaves were his property.

What makes ‘The Underground Railroad’ powerful is that it is not an impassioned plea against slavery, but instead an objective enactment of the details of life for the slaves.  We see slavery through the eyes of the slave Cora whose grandmother Ajarry was captured in Africa and shipped to the Randall plantation in Georgia.  Cora’s mother Mabel ran away from the plantation when Cora was ten never to be heard from again. The plantation is now divided up between the two Randall sons, the northern half to James and the southern half to his younger brother Terrance.

“James was as ruthless and brutal as any white man, but he was the portrait of moderation compared to his younger brother.  The stories from the southern half were chilling in magnitude if not in particulars.”  

When James dies, and Terrance takes over the whole plantation, Cora and her friend Caesar decide to run away.

The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses of people who would help the runaway slaves to escape to free states.  The conceit of Colson Whitehead is that there really was a railroad and train running underground which will take runaway slaves to different parts of the country.  Thus the sections of the novel after Cora and Caesar run away take place in different states which are stops on this imaginary railroad: South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and finally the free state of Indiana.  Each state has its own severe brutal racists, including Indiana. Ever present is the slave catcher Ridgeway who is following just behind Cora and Caesar to catch them and bring them back to the Randall plantation.

In actual fact, very few of the slaves in the deep southern states of the United States could ever successfully run away what with all the slave catchers and night riders and other assorted vicious folk working in league with the despicable white slave owners.  The Underground Railroad did not operate that far south.

Every location that Cora stops has its own cast of characters, and the story gets somewhat diffuse as Cora and we travel from state to state.


Grade:   B+ 

%d bloggers like this: