Summary and book reviews of Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Harlem Shuffle

by Colson Whitehead

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead X
Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
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  • Published:
    Sep 2021, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jennifer Hon Khalaf
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About this Book

Book Summary

From the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, a gloriously entertaining novel of heists, shakedowns, and rip-offs set in Harlem in the 1960s.

"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.

But mostly, it's a joy to read, another dazzling novel from the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning Colson Whitehead.

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Whitehead is a masterful writer, able to present characters and scenes that draw us in with fast-paced action, while also slowing down to provide enough gratifying and diverting details that allow us to enjoy the historical backdrop where the excitement unfolds. He is cerebral enough to pepper his deceptively simple prose with reflections upon double consciousness, race theory and criticisms of capitalism and privilege. At the same time, while we're entertained, surprised and intellectually stimulated by the novel's outstanding execution, somewhere a beating heart is missing. The novel is so plot-driven and filled with so much, that Whitehead overlooks delving into the rich internal lives.

Media Reviews

New York Times
Whitehead's sweet, sweaty, authoritative, densely peopled portrait of a Harlem in near perpetual summer is the most successful part of the book...Except for a couple of potted histories, Whitehead's research in Harlem Shuffle feels richly integrated with the story; he knows the people of Harlem in the 1960s; and the people are just that: real people...[W]hile I valued Whitehead's attempt to write a serene character on the verge of success — extremely hard to pull off in fiction — I longed for the taut prose of The Nickel Boys.

NPR
I especially enjoyed Whitehead's prose, so vividly cinematic it brought to mind some of my favorite gritty heist films...[E]very paragraph is full of authentic voices...Colson Whitehead has a couple of Pulitzers under his belt, along with several other awards celebrating his outstanding novels. Harlem Shuffle is a suspenseful crime thriller that's sure to add to the tally — it's a fabulous novel you must read.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[A] sizzling heist novel...It's a superlative story, but the most impressive achievement is Whitehead's loving depiction of a Harlem 60 years gone...Don't be surprised if this one wins Whitehead another major award.

Booklist (starred review)
Whitehead delivers a portrait of Harlem in the early '60s, culminating with the Harlem Riot of 1964, that is brushed with lovingly etched detail and features a wonderful panoply of characters who spring to full-bodied life, blending joy, humor, and tragedy. A triumph on every level.

Library Journal (starred review)
The stakes here aren't as high, or the subject matter as heavy, as in his two recent masterworks, but Whitehead's mystery explores the intersections of Black class mobility, civil unrest, and New York City in an entertaining way. Another can't-miss from the versatile Whitehead, for readers who loved James McBride's Deacon King Kong.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
[R]eaders will be captivated by a Dickensian array of colorful, idiosyncratic characters...As one of Whitehead's characters might say of their creator, When you're hot, you're hot.

Reader Reviews

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