Colson Whitehead's heartwarming novel about the Cape of Crime in 1960s Harlem (for 2021) (2023)


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DoorKaran Mahajan

Vrata Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead is in tears. In the past five years, he published three novels, two of which won the Pulitzer Prize. Taken together, these books demonstrate Whitehead's mastery of structure, history, and atmosphere, not to mention the enthusiasm he displayed throughout his career for judiciously mixing the palette of literary and genre fiction. The runaway slave story "The Underground Railroad" was equally inspired by "Gulliver's Travels" and (somewhat to its own detriment) children's books like "Harry Potter." "The Nickel Boys," Whitehead's best book in my opinion, is a boy's adventure story repurposed for a bleak penitentiary, the "prison within a prison" of American life, multiplying the meanings of slavery and segregation.

By comparison, the crime thriller "Harlem Shuffle" is a much quieter, smarter, and warmer book; a book that luxuriously dwells in the neglected spaces of the late night, "when the real world was asleep, and bent over, they went to work"; and treats that empire of mobsters with names like Pepper, Chink Montague and Miami Joe as extended, if dangerous, family. However, this book is also driven by a serious historical purpose, showing us the micro-changes in the landscape of Harlem and the prospects of black Americans in the North in the 1960s.

Whitehead's sweet, sweaty, authoritative, crowded portrait of Harlem in an almost eternal summer is the most successful part of the book. If I hadn't known that Whitehead was a talented shapeshifter, I - as an outsider from Harlem - would have believed that he was justeverwritten about this institution. Effortlessly citing local characters and establishments (real and fictional), Whitehead presents Harlem as "men in undershirts drinking beer" on doorsteps while "outsmarting some kind of Southern devil"; professionals fighting for power in elite clubs; and sad Chinese restaurants where "biscuits were stale and fate was disheartening". Equally impressive is Whitehead's understanding of various trades such as furniture sales, jewelry stores, electronics repair - and, of course, petty theft. Aside from a few bits of history, Whitehead's investigation in "Harlem Shuffle" feels richly connected to the story; he knows people from Harlem in the sixties; and people are just that: real people.

In the past, Whitehead has shown a deep interest in systems, but not always in human psychology (an accusation also leveled against earlier writers of systems novels such as Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon). This book is a step forward. Ray Carney, the protagonist, is in some ways Whitehead's most fully developed character, for the simple reason that he is not only a master of "fencing" (serving as a go-between for thieves), but also of self-deception. An up-and-coming furniture salesman with a side hustle - for a small fee he'll take your stolen TV, radio or brooch to a reputable shop downtown - Carney clings to the false belief that he's notRealshy. In some of the best parts of the book, written from a third-person perspective, Carney protests that he only facilitated "that outflow" of stolen goods; and that even if he "got a rhythm turning these ill-gotten goods into legitimate goods, the zap charging through his blood like plugging into an electrical outlet, he controlled it, not the other way around." However, as the book progresses, Carney loses control . Against his will, he becomes an accomplice in a major robbery, and his life - and self-image - change.

The heist, which occupies the first part of the book, was brilliantly executed by both the participants and the omniscient author. In describing the (fictional) robbery of the (real) Hotel Theresa—the seedy "headquarters of the black world"—Whitehead's prose becomes tense, electric, and joyous. "To rob the Hotel Theresa," writes Whitehead, was like "putting Jackie Robinson on Mickey the night before the World Cup." The novel treats the hotel itself as a microcosm of Harlem, and each citizen caught in the robbery is marked with a smooth biography. If Whitehead had finished the book after this fierce and funny part, it would have been one of the few perfect novellas in American literature.

Unfortunately - or fortunately, depending on your taste - Whitehead continues; and the rest of the book yields mixed results.

"Harlem Shuffle" is structured as a three-part miniseries set in 1959, 1961 and 1964. As it progresses, riots rage in Harlem against police shootings; the old suave gangsters give way to a new breed of "hot-headed, wild, always insignificant" cowards; and "The Junkie Shake, that new dance," becomes "in vogue." The flavor of each episode is slightly different, but they are connected by Carney and his badass cousin Freddie, who always involves Carney in the occasional scheme against his will.

If the first episode is a portrait of a reluctant swindler, in the second episode Carney is a contented family man, making progress in the world, expanding his showroom, more comfortable like a fence. He's also aching with anger at being swindled out of $500 by a scrappy Harlem banker who reneged on his promise of membership in Harlem's elite startup club. For the next 100 pages, in an often wobbly plot—"I've got to do something before I can do anything else, and I've got to do something else before I do that," Carney explains a little too aptly—Carney plots to work out a vendetta against the banker.

But like the heist, this revenge goes perfectly, with little consequence for Carney—and the book loses energy as a result. Instead of forcing Carney's self-image into crisis, Whitehead gives us less than original observations about how everyone is a fraud. In fact, after the startling danger of the first part, Whitehead shields Carney from real harm for most of the novel, and many scenes - filled with sitcom-like angelic wives, evil in-laws and criminals miraculously freed from misogyny or sexual violence - have the dreamy feel of a comic book. The darkness—of Carney's lonely childhood, of drug abuse, of violent crime—is pushed into corners and emerges only occasionally, as in one character's extremely depressing and ominous flashback about building a supply line in Burma during World War II. And while I appreciated Whitehead's attempt to write a serene character on the brink of success — something extremely difficult to pull off in fiction — I longed for the tight prose of "The Nickel Boys," where every sentence, spoken laconically, advances the dark story. .

Fortunately, Whitehead righted the ship in episode three, which focuses on another crime Carney reluctantly takes part in, with potentially deadly consequences for the people he loves. And the crime story, which was inert, suddenly comes to life, reminding us that Whitehead, despite all the twists and turns and pranksters, remains America's master.

Karan Mahajan is the author of the novel 'Family Planning' and the National Book Award finalist 'The Association of Small Bombs'. He teaches at Brown University.

Vrata Colson Whitehead
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What are the themes of Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead? ›

“Harlem Shuffle” shines in the realism it creates, the themes of power, influence, race and revenge have shaped modern New York City and every other American city built on a foundation of inequality and corruption.

What is the book Harlem Shuffle about? ›

Set against a backdrop of the 1964 Harlem race riots, looting, gentrification, and corrupt Black capitalists, Harlem Shuffle is a story about property and the vexed relationship that African Americans have with it.

Is Harlem Shuffle part of a trilogy? ›

The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner is back with the second in a trilogy that kicked off with “Harlem Shuffle.”

Is Harlem Shuffle Based on a true story? ›

It is a work of crime fiction and a family saga that takes place in Harlem between 1959 and 1964. It was published by Doubleday on September 14, 2021. A sequel titled Crook Manifesto will be published in July 2023.

What is the meaning of Harlem Shuffle? ›

The Harlem Shuffle is a dance maneuver that takes various forms. One form is as a complete line dance, consisting of approximately 25 steps. Other forms may include a simplified two-step followed by a shoulder-brushing motion with the back of the opposite hand.

What does Harlem Hopscotch symbolize? ›

In this piece, Angelou describes a game of hopscotch, using it as an extended metaphor to speak about how Black men, women, and children have to move through a racist world. She explores the meaning of freedom and alludes to the dangers of pushing too far.

What happens in the end of Harlem Shuffle? ›

At the end we see the chasm from which the World Trade Center's twin towers will rise, the fruit of a deal between more compromised New York mucky mucks. Sic transit gloria mundi, says the author. Thus passes worldly glory. Harlem Shuffle is yet another Colson Whitehead masterpiece.

Is Harlem Shuffle a mystery? ›

Harlem Shuffle is a suspenseful crime thriller that's sure to add to the tally — it's a fabulous novel you must read.”

Who is the main character in Harlem Shuffle? ›

Ray Carney

Ray is the protagonist of Harlem Shuffle and the readers' entry point into the world of Harlem in the late 1950s and early 1960s. As an African American man from a poor background, Ray has faced many challenges in his life.

What happens in part 3 of the Harlem Shuffle? ›

Part 3: “Cool It Baby | 1964”

Three years later, Ray has moved his family to a better neighborhood. Following the collapse of Duke's bank, his in-laws have moved three times and faced financial difficulty. At a family meal, Leland and Alma complain about the recent protests and riots in the city.

How many chapters are in Harlem Shuffle? ›

This in-depth study guide offers summaries & analyses for all 26 chapters of Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead.

Who was the original artist Harlem Shuffle? ›

"Harlem Shuffle" is an R&B song written and originally recorded by the duo Bob & Earl in 1963. In 1986, it was covered by the British rock band The Rolling Stones on their album Dirty Work.

Is Nickel Boys a sequel to Underground Railroad? ›

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead is the follow-up to his Pulitzer-winning Underground Railroad.

What happens in Chapter 2 of the Harlem Shuffle? ›

In Part II, Carney has begun using the furniture shop as a front for criminal activity. Local thieves bring him stolen loot, which Carney moves with the help of a local jeweler, Harvey Moskowitz. Suddenly Carney feels that he is becoming the powerful and successful man he has always wanted to be.

Why is the poem Harlem so famous? ›

One of the reasons ''Harlem'' is considered an influential poem in American literature is that many people, African-American or other, can easily relate to the frustration of not being able to have their dreams come true and their goals and wishes fulfilled.

What is the meaning of night funeral in Harlem? ›

“Night Funeral in Harlem” depicts the funeral of a young Black man who died in poverty. While this "poor boy" didn't leave much money behind, his community covered all his funeral expenses; the people who loved him pay for his coffin, flower arrangements, and a preacher.

What dance is named for Harlem? ›

The Harlem shake is a style of hip-hop dance and is characterized by jerky arm and shoulder movements in time to music. The dance was created by Harlem resident Al B. (Albert Boyce) in 1981; the dance was initially called "The Albee" or "The Al.

What is the warning in the poem Harlem? ›

Langston Hughes' poem Warning is meant as a warning to the racist white majority that controls the United States. They see black people are being simple and "docile", but if they were every allowed to reach their full potential, they might threaten the power-structure that exists in America.

What is the dream referred to in Harlem? ›

The title, “Harlem,” places the poem in this historically black and immigrant neighborhood in New York City, while the "dream" could be any dream that those in Harlem have had: a dream for a better life, for opportunity, for equality—most broadly, for access to the American Dream itself.

What is the theme of Harlem dream Deferred? ›

'Harlem' (A Dream Deferred) is one of a number of poems Hughes wrote that relates to the lives of African-American people in the USA. The short poem poses questions about the aspirations of a people and the consequences that might arise if those dreams and hopes don't come to fruition.

Why does Helga leave Harlem? ›

Helga's decision to leave Harlem to live with her aunt in Denmark is heavily informed by her search for belonging, but she still grapples with guilt over her desire to disassociate from society's tendency to view her as a Black woman.

How does the White Boy Shuffle end? ›

The novel ends with his death poem, left in his LAPD locker before he kills himself by swallowing his own gun.

What time period was Harlem Shuffle? ›

“Harlem Shuffle” is structured as a three-part mini-series set in 1959, 1961 and 1964.

What is Dorval in Harlem Shuffle? ›

The French call this middle period dorveille, combining words for both sleep and awake. Carney refers to it as the “dorvay,” due to its pronunciation. This idea of our nights divided into threes is also a metaphor for Carney's life in Harlem Shuffle.

Has Harlem Shuffle won any awards? ›

The acclaimed work won several awards, most notably a Pulitzer. In 2021 Whitehead published Harlem Shuffle, a crime novel that opens in 1959 and centres on a furniture salesman who becomes involved in a scheme to rob a hotel.

Who was the little boy in Harlem Nights? ›

Desi Arnez Hines II: Young Quick.

Who is Linus in Harlem Shuffle? ›

Add to all of this Freddie's unusual relationship with Linus Van Wyck, the drug addicted son of Ambrose Van Wyck, and Ray finds himself dragged into worlds he never imagined. Leland Jones, Elizabeth's father, is a member of Harlem's exclusive Dumas Club.

Who were the characters from Harlem Nights? ›

What happened in Chapter 7 of the Harlem Shuffle? ›

In Chapter 7, Carney thought about his situation with Freddie while walking. He knew he did not have to get involved. Yet he also "wanted to prove that he could move a big rock" and "stick it to the rich bastards again" (285). Observing the city's recent changes, Carney noticed the ways it was divided.

Will there be a sequel to Harlem Shuffle? ›

Colson Whitehead returns this summer with a sequel to the spectacular 2021 literary crime novel Harlem Shuffle. Crook Manifesto (Doubleday, July) is the second chapter in the saga of furniture salesman and heister Ray Carney.

Was Teddy killed in Godfather of Harlem? ›

Chin's right hand man goads Ernie to kill Teddy and says he'll do it himself. Ernie goes to the Apollo but only to warn Stella and Teddy, but he's too late. Chin's man shoots Teddy, who seemingly dies.

How long is the New York trilogy? ›

The New York Trilogy
First edition
AuthorPaul Auster
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
Pages478 pp. (hbk) 314 pp. (pbk)
ISBN9780571149254 (hbk) ISBN 9780571152230
8 more rows

Who is the most famous jazz singer from Harlem? ›

Louis Armstrong is widely considered the grandfather of jazz, and his work at spreading the music as an art form took place during the Harlem Renaissance. He recorded a number of iconic tracks with his Hot Five & Hot Seven groups, including this joyful version of 'Savoy Blues'.

Who invented jazz in Harlem? ›

Langston Hughes is considered a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance. He invented jazz poetry, inspired by jazz and blues rhythms. However, Hughes also wrote critical articles and newspaper columns where he presented what Layne regards as an early sociology of taste. “Jazz and blues was music for the black masses.

What is the irony in the Nickel boy? ›

The irony in Whitehead's novel is that Nickel is also the incubator for an “incandescent love” in the hearts of his protagonists. Whitehead first learned of the Dozier School in the summer of 2014 (the summer of Ferguson, Mo.), when its cruelties made the papers.

Is Harriet Tubman in The Underground Railroad series? ›

Other significant figures in the Underground Railroad include Harriet Tubman (as mentioned above), John Brown, Thomas Garrett, Levi Coffin, Elijah Anderson, and Thaddeus Stevens.

What was Elwood's punishment for the letter? ›

A judge sentences Elwood to a reform school called Nickel Academy, and Elwood is handcuffed and put in the back seat of a state vehicle.

What happens in chapter 21 of Down These Mean Streets? ›

Chapter 21 Summary: “Hung Down”

Piri starts to sell drugs himself in order to support his habit, working for a drug dealer nicknamed “Turkey.” Making good money and doing a lot of drugs, Piri is satisfied until there is a city-wide shortage of heroin, and he loses his supply of both drugs and money.

What happens in the first chapter of clap when you land? ›

Chapter 1 Summary: “Camino”

In the morning, Camino and Tía Solana lock up their house and travel to tend to a woman in their community who is bedridden with cancer. A stray dog named Vira Lata accompanies them. Camino helps feed the woman a drink of water while Tía Solana lights incense in the corners of the room.

What happens in Chapitre 2 of Le Petit Prince? ›

Summary: Chapter II

The narrator feels lonely his whole life until one day, six years before he tells his story, he crashes his plane in the middle of the Sahara desert. As the situation is beginning to look dire, the pilot is shocked to hear an odd little voice asking him to draw a sheep.

What are the themes of Harlem Shadows? ›

The poems in Harlem Shadows deal with themes of racism, the ugliness of urban life, anger and hate, resistance to racism, lost and remembered love, as well as longing and nostalgia. The poems are rhyming poems that reflect the author's mastery of descriptive language.

What are the themes in Cotton Comes to Harlem? ›

Cotton Comes to Harlem presented a diversity of themes, including discrimination and intra-racial justice, surrounding The Black Community.

What is one difference in the themes of Harlem? ›

What is one difference in the themes of "Harlem" and "The Weary Blues"? "Harlem" conveys resentment, while "The Weary Blues" shows expression.

What is the main idea of Harlem Dancer? ›

"The Harlem Dancer" is a sonnet by the Jamaican-American poet Claude McKay. The poem offers a tender portrait of a nightclub dancer, describing the contrast between her distracted inner thoughts and her sensual presence in the club.

What does Harlem Shadows focus primarily on? ›

One of the many poems that McKay wrote is called “Harlem Shadows,” in which McKay discusses the side of Harlem others are unfamiliar with. The poem primarily deals with Harlem's appearance at night and the plight of his African American sisters who have to work as prostitutes due to their poverty.

What does the title of the Harlem Shadows mean? ›

The title poem of the collection Harlem Shadows is a depiction of the lives of Black prostitutes. It reflects themes of racism and poverty throughout the poem. Still, other poems have very different themes.

What is the historical context of Harlem Shadows? ›

“Harlem Shadows” spotlights the difficult lives of Black sex workers in 1920s Harlem. Watching these women one night, the speaker suggests that the “stern harsh world” has forced them into a harrowing occupation out of necessity.

When did cotton come to Harlem? ›

Cotton Comes to Harlem is a 1970 American neo-noir action comedy thriller film co-written and directed by Ossie Davis and starring Godfrey Cambridge, Raymond St. Jacques, and Redd Foxx. The film, later cited as an early example of the blaxploitation genre, is based on Chester Himes' novel of the same name.

What year did Cotton Comes to Harlem come out? ›

Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) - IMDb.

Why is Harlem so significant? ›

The Harlem section of Manhattan, which covers just three square miles, drew nearly 175,000 African Americans, giving the neighborhood the largest concentration of black people in the world. Harlem became a destination for African Americans of all backgrounds.

What is the tone and mood of Harlem? ›

The mood of the poem ''Harlem'' (also known as ''A Dream Deferred'') by Langston Hughes is frustration; the poem expresses the belief that the American Dream was not achievable for African Americans in the early 20th century due to racism and oppression.

What is the speaker's tone in Harlem? ›

The tone of “Harlem” is anticipatory and prophetic. Everything the speaker says in the poem is oriented toward what will happen in the future.

What is the main message of dance? ›

Basic motives: self-expression and physical release. One of the most basic motives of dance is the expression and communication of emotion. People—and even certain animals—often dance as a way of releasing powerful feelings, such as sudden accesses of high spirits, joy, impatience, or anger.

What figurative language is used in the Harlem dancer? ›

The poem contains imagery and figurative language. For example, the speaker compares the dancer to a "flowering tree," which serves to illustrate her beauty. The poem also contains internal rhyme, with the lines "was never known to tire," "so lithe and lithely," and "so slim and slimly" all rhyming.

Why did Langston write Harlem? ›

Langston Hughes wrote 'Harlem (A Dream Deferred)' in response to what he felt, having his own literary genius be kept segregated from that of his white counterparts. He wanted true equality to reign so that his works of literature might be recognized among all writers of his time, not just those in Harlem.


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