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Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
Literary fiction

Harlem Shuffle

by Colson Whitehead

Quick take

A riveting and wily historical heist story from a contemporary master that will leave you feeling in on the deal.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Unreliable

    Unreliable narrator

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  • Illustrated icon, Icon_60s


Why I love it

Mateo Askaripour
Author, Black Buck

When it comes to Colson Whitehead’s plots, you never know what you’re going to get. My introduction to the two-time Pulitzer winner was Sag Harbor; a story about a Black kid who spends the summer on Long Island. As someone who grew up there and often felt like an outsider, it spoke to me. John Henry Days, Apex Hides the Hurt, The Underground Railroad—novels as exciting and varied as an advent calendar, all connected by themes of power, representation, and America. The man doesn’t miss.

And Harlem Shuffle is no exception. Set in 1950s and 60s Harlem, Whitehead sucks us into the world of Ray Carney, a furniture salesman best described as “curved”—not exactly straight, but not exactly crooked. Carney dreams of a better life for his family, and this motivates him to act as a go-between for thieves and those who acquire their stolen gems, TVs, and radios. But when his cousin, Freddie, pulls him into a heist, we’re forced to ask, “Just how crooked will Carney become?”

With sparing prose packed with a punch, Whitehead’s latest work is a realistic portrayal of how quickly life can get out of hand, as well as the forces—historical, institutional, and familial—that can propel any of us in a direction we didn’t think possible. Revenge, cinematic fight scenes, criminality crackling in the air, even people with names like “Dootsie Bell” and “Miami Joe;” Harlem Shuffle is entertaining, yes, and also educational in a way that only a master of their craft could pull off.

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“Ray Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked…” To his customers and neighbors on 125th street, Carney is an upstanding salesman of reasonably priced furniture, making a decent life for himself and his family. He and his wife Elizabeth are expecting their second child, and if her parents on Striver’s Row don’t approve of him or their cramped apartment across from the subway tracks, it’s still home.

Few people know he descends from a line of uptown hoods and crooks, and that his façade of normalcy has more than a few cracks in it. Cracks that are getting bigger all the time.

Cash is tight, especially with all those installment-plan sofas, so if his cousin Freddie occasionally drops off the odd ring or necklace, Ray doesn’t ask where it comes from. He knows a discreet jeweler downtown who doesn’t ask questions, either.

Then Freddie falls in with a crew who plan to rob the Hotel Theresa—the “Waldorf of Harlem”—and volunteers Ray’s services as the fence. The heist doesn’t go as planned; they rarely do. Now Ray has a new clientele, one made up of shady cops, vicious local gangsters, two-bit pornographers, and other assorted Harlem lowlifes.

Thus begins the internal tussle between Ray the striver and Ray the crook. As Ray navigates this double life, he begins to see who actually pulls the strings in Harlem. Can Ray avoid getting killed, save his cousin, and grab his share of the big score, all while maintaining his reputation as the go-to source for all your quality home furniture needs?

Harlem Shuffle’s ingenious story plays out in a beautifully recreated New York City of the early 1960s. It’s a family saga masquerading as a crime novel, a hilarious morality play, a social novel about race and power, and ultimately a love letter to Harlem.

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Get an early look from the first pages of Harlem Shuffle.

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