After a very long period of disrepute, historical fiction can suddenly claim in its ranks the most garlanded novelists on either side of the Atlantic. In the U.K., that’s Hilary Mantel, the eerily brilliant channel of the Tudor mind, who has only Stockholm left to call her with good news. Here in America, meanwhile, the master of historical fiction in his prime, who has won two Pulitzer Prizes, a National Book Award, a MacArthur, and a Guggenheim, is … Colson Whitehead?
Fans of Whitehead’s early work might well be astonished to learn it. But it’s time for those fans (I’m one) to adjust their notions of the author. The ludic—at weak moments, antic—postmodernism of his first period, with John Henry Days and The Intuitionist its high points, was only very faintly traced into his breakthrough: 2016’s The Underground Railroad. That book, with its breathless stakes, inventive but unerringly accurate carnival of white supremacy, and stunning evocation of the internal emotions of slavery, finally combined Whitehead’s many strengths across a sustained work for the first time.
The world took notice, to put it mildly. His next novel was another historical work, The Nickel Boys, a painful, morally urgent fictional re-creation of the real-life abuse that took place at a school for Black boys in Florida. Its reception (another Pulitzer, to start) suggested Whitehead’s possible status as—a strangely persevering role in our culture—the greatest living American novelist.
Now, following these successive triumphs, Whitehead has written Harlem Shuffle. It’s a casual, beautiful novel, extraordinarily enjoyable, about a mostly legit businessman trying to make it in midcentury Harlem. His name is Ray Carney, and he owns a furniture showroom on 125th Street, making rent partially through the resale of used and sometimes stolen goods.
But this fact doesn’t match Ray’s sense of himself, nor ours of him. Ray’s father was a real criminal, a violent and fearsome character, but his son is married—to a member of the local Black aristocracy, at that, to her parents’ chagrin—and when he dreams about professional success, it’s about his shop becoming the first “Negro” furniture store to carry the finest living-room sets.
Shades of Criminality
Harlem Shuffle takes place across three novella-length stories set in 1959, 1961, and 1964, each revolving around a closer brush than Ray usually makes with the criminal world flourishing around him. In each period he’s more successful, too, and his shop is more stable, as he gradually gains power and respect in Harlem—even from his overawing in-laws.
As for his crimes, Whitehead makes clear how little they have to do with morality. From the moment he sets up his shop, he has to pay protection to cops and gangsters; his beloved cousin Freddie is constantly involving him in disastrous schemes; and his father’s old associates use the shop as an answering service without asking.
Yet Ray is a criminal, driven partly by the urge to make more, be more. (Late in the book a dirty cop raises a toast to him as “the biggest nobody in Harlem.”) It’s this mental nuance that makes Ray perhaps Whitehead’s finest character.
In the less successful of Whitehead’s early books, there was a stubborn emotional remove in even overtly emotional passages, the language and thought always crystalline, the author’s gifts never in question, but the heartbeat thready. Not in Harlem Shuffle.
Maybe it’s this that writing historical fiction has given Whitehead: the ability to command a fuller and more fine-grain range of human emotions, granted to him in part by the safety of characters firmly embedded in other eras, away from himself. Some writers flourish in that freedom.
If not as complete a racial parable as The Underground Railroad or as devastating to one’s sense of American humanity as The Nickel Boys, Harlem Shuffle is their peer in its depiction of Black life in this country. The book feels very much a part of Whitehead’s great and complex project (intentional or not) in this second phase of his career to write about Black history in America with the fullness of attention and empathy that white Americans have taken for granted.
A casual, beautiful novel about a mostly legit businessman trying to make it in midcentury Harlem.
Race is part of every detail in Ray’s life, obviously. “He was thirteen during the riots of ’43. A white cop shot a Negro soldier,” Whitehead relays. “For two nights Harlem was aboil.” Near the end of the book, 20 years later, it’s aboil again, after another white cop, one Thomas R. Gilligan, shoots and kills a ninth-grader he claimed was reaching for a knife. Both stories are based on actual events.
Yet it’s the in-between shades of racism, as much as the ones most glaringly relevant, that Whitehead captures most masterfully through Ray—the thousands of apperceptions of insult both subtle and blatant, the unending accumulation of slights, that comprised life as a Black person in the 50s and 60s.
One reason Ray has to scheme to join the Dumas Club, for Harlem’s most distinguished Black men, is that his skin is too dark. Even in his daydreams, his mind accounts for institutional racism—passing one of the apartment buildings he yearns for on Riverside Drive, Ray automatically includes in his accounting of its virtues “a landlord who leased to Negro families.”
The book’s three plotlines, each revolving around a crime, are engaging and well constructed, if perhaps a little perfunctory. (Is it cynical to wonder if their shape looks suspiciously like that of a prestige TV show? The Underground Railroad, directed by Barry Jenkins for Amazon, was a critical success upon its release earlier this year.) They could be peak Elmore Leonard, with their episodes of semi-violence and moral ambiguity.
Even in Ray’s daydreams, his mind accounts for institutional racism—passing one of the apartment buildings he yearns for on Riverside Drive, he automatically includes in his accounting of its virtues “a landlord who leased to Negro families.”
As in Leonard, some of the minor characters (an eager, country sales associate at the store, a villainous Ur-Madoff) are splendid, others vague or forgettable. The women in the book are given seriously short shrift. Ray’s wife, Elizabeth, is as bad as a Murakami character, a vague Madonna built to carry Ray’s feelings. (“He puzzled over these alien things she offered him,” Whitehead writes. “Kindness and faith, he didn’t know which box to put them in.”) His young secretary is noticeable mainly for being unflappably loyal and a great baker.
But Ray is a character strong and central enough to override these faults in the narrative. In the book’s often thrilling final section, we sense for the first time that he’s close to actually losing what he’s built on 125th Street. “He’d spent so much time trying to keep one half of himself separate from the other half,” Whitehead writes.
There’s a risk in this final period of Ray’s ascent that he could alienate the reader, when suddenly a threat presents itself, and, for their safety, Ray sends his employees home. “It relieved him more than he anticipated to have them safe,” Whitehead writes. He wants us to notice the thought so much that he puts it in its own paragraph, and it works—the kind of subtle, adroit moral re-centering that great writers can pull off, and which makes Harlem Shuffle as much kin to the work of Bernard Malamud or Nathaniel Hawthorne as to its overt crime-fiction influences.
It’s a curiosity that of the four men who have won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction twice (Tarkington, Faulkner, Updike, and Whitehead), Whitehead has a background that is arguably the most affluent: successful parents, raised in Manhattan, vacationed in the Hamptons, attended Trinity, graduated from Harvard. A curiosity because, for all that, and for all his success, he is a Black man in a society partly built and partly still predicated upon the violent oppression of Black people.
It’s this dissonance that Whitehead captures so remarkably in every era of history that he writes on: how ultimately Ray’s successes and failures, what kind of apartment his children grow up in, whether he makes it into the Dumas Club, are still only events occurring within a system designed to destroy him. What is morality in such a society? It’s this question that Harlem Shuffle whispers to us from behind its funny, rich, hugely pleasurable re-creation of midcentury Harlem. It’s 2021, and we still don’t have an answer.
Charles Finch is the author of the Charles Lenox mystery series