So Colson Whitehead knows how to tell a story, and Harlem Shuffle is a great one. The novel opens in 1959, jumps to 1961, and wraps up in 1964. It is a time of intense transition in New York City, as is obvious by all the people jettisoning their radios and buying TVs. And the changes are chaotic and violent, as is evident by the 1964 race riots in Harlem. But this is nothing new. It is always a time of intense transition in New York City, and the changes are always chaotic and frequently violent.
Carney owns a furniture store in Harlem. That’s his legitimate business. His side hustle is less legitimate. He fences the odd piece of jewelry or electronics for his cousin, Freddie, and a few other small-time thieves. Just to be clear, however, in a city where cops, successful businessmen, politicians, and everyone else is corrupt, Carney is “only slightly bent when it [comes] to being crooked.”
Freddie gets him involved in a heist of the Hotel Theresa, which is a sacred place in Harlem. Robbing it is tantamount to “taking a piss on the Statue of Liberty.” The insult is magnified because they rob it on Juneteenth. That kind of bad karma is a snapping turtle. It bites hard and doesn’t let go.
This starts a chain of events over the next several years that has Carney trying to survive his judgment-impaired cousin, corrupt White cops, disingenuous light-skinned Black businessmen, and the descendants of Dutch families who originally “bought” the island and think they still own it. Carney is the ultimate underdog relying on his wits and guts to survive, and the reader can’t help but root for him.
Survival is a major theme. “Black people always found a way in the most miserable circumstances. If we didn’t, we’d have been exterminated by the white man long ago.” So is revenge. When Carney’s application to the Dumas Club is rejected (because he is too dark-skinned and can’t pass the paper bag test), he goes after its leader, Wilfred Dukes. Not because he was excluded from Harlem’s most exclusive business club, but because Dukes encouraged him to give a “sweetener”, which Carney believes should have guaranteed his admission. The club is named for Alexandre Dumas, whose father was a French army officer and whose mother was a Haitian slave. Dumas wrote the most famous revenge story of all time – The Count of Monte Cristo. So that’s wonderful, and so is Carney’s revenge.
But the real story is how Carney deals with the consequences of the Hotel Theresa heist. Can his wits save him and Freddie? The novel ends at the construction site for the future World Trade Center (the Twin Towers). So more transitions are on the way. And they will be intense, chaotic, and violent.
Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor