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Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
Literary fiction

Harlem Shuffle

by Colson Whitehead

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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

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Movieish

    Movieish

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Nyc

    NYC

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_60s

    60s

Synopsis

“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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Free sample

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

ONE

His cousin Freddie brought him on the heist one hot night in early June. Ray Carney was having one of his run-around days—uptown, downtown, zipping across the city. Keeping the machine humming. First up was Radio Row, to unload the final three consoles, two RCAs and a Magnavox, and pick up the TV he left. He’d given up on the radios, hadn’t sold one in a year and a half no matter how much he marked them down and begged. Now they took up space in the basement that he needed for the new recliners coming in from Argent next week and whatever he picked up from the dead lady’s apartment that afternoon. The radios were top-of-the-line three years ago; now padded blankets hid their slick mahogany cabinets, fastened by leather straps to the truck bed. The pickup bounced in the unholy rut of the West Side Highway.

Just that morning there was another article in the Tribune about the city tearing down the elevated highway. Narrow and indifferently cobblestoned, the road was a botch from the start. On the best days it was bumper-to-bumper, a bitter argument of honks and curses, and on rainy days the potholes were treacherous lagoons, one grim slosh. Last week a customer wandered into the store with his head wrapped like a mummy—beaned by a chunk of falling balustrade while walking under the damn thing. Said he was going to sue. Carney said, “You’re in your rights.” Around Twenty-Third Street the pickup’s wheels bit into a crater and he thought one of the RCAs was going to launch from the bed into the Hudson River. He was relieved when he was able to sneak off at Duane Street without incident.

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Why I love it

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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Member ratings (8,322)

  • Andrea W.

    Longview, TX

    Ray uses “being a little bent” and a heist to realize his goals of success (and revenge). Every time Ray “did a deal,” the plot leapt forward! His internal monologue is super relatable and quotable.

  • Marie G.

    Greenwich , NY

    I was able to vividly picture Harlem of the past, especially Ray’s store. I found the sort of daydreamy way that Ray “thinks” served to characterize him clearly. It was different, and I loved it.

  • Tammy V.

    Phoenixville, PA

    Carney is really caught in a shuffle between multiple worlds. Weaving of history into the fictional-but could be real-characters. Also, highlighted, how whether you’re rich or poor - you’re shuffling

  • Cindy W.

    Randolph, NJ

    A powerful story of one man’s struggle, in 1960s Harlem, to rise up and own a legit business. His cousin throws a wrench in that. “Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked…”

  • Taylor F.

    Fort Wayne, IN

    Schemers & dreamers. Mobsters & crooks. Elaborate heists & furniture fronts. This novel oozes with the thrilling mischief of those who are up to no good, as well as those just trying to make a living.

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