Harlem Shuffle – Colson Whitehead

Harlem Shuffle is a three-part book about a furniture store owner at 125th Street and Morningside in New York City in 1959, 1961, 1964. Harlem itself is a character in this novel, its hierarchy, its ordinary families, its upper crust and those trying to change their lives or to preserve the status quo. I sat in my car and listened to this book for an hour when I had nowhere to go. It is that incredibly well written and entertaining. It is funny, sad, outrageous and informative all at once. Ray Carny’s mother died when he was young and his criminal father raised him part of the time. He always lived near his cousin Freddy and Aunt Millie growing up. Aunt Millie raised Ray off and on. Freddie’s Dad is only home occasionally. Ray got a business degree from Queens College. Freddy is drawn more to the criminal element and substance abuse. Ray married “up” to such an extent, his in-laws are very unhappy with their daughter’s choice. Freddy never married. Harlem Shuffle does cover three periods in Ray’s life and how he evolves as a businessman in Harlem, but it is much more about the person he is and how the different parts of his past life influence him as an adult. He is so loyal to Freddy that, in pulling him out of his scrapes and bad choices, Ray ends up being tainted. Freddy will tell him each time, “I didn’t mean to get you in trouble.” But Ray has agency and he knows just how to get in trouble for himself. Whitehead writes characters like nobody’s business! Ray is complicated. He’s a good father and husband but he has compartmentalized the honest businessman and good father from the guy that sells things that “fell off a truck,” or that Freddy brings in with no possibly legitimate provenance. He knows only the fences who will work with a black man, which limits his prospects at first until he finds a more skilled fence who will work with a black man. He thinks of himself as less of a criminal than his father since he does have a completely legitimate business that is more than a front. He evolves from selling gently used furniture to being a representative of favored furniture companies, trying hard at one point to become a representative for one that has never certified a black person. The ways that the multiple compartments that are Ray interacts with his dead father’s old cronies, his cousin, the mob, businessmen (black and white) and the cops puts in him into situations that are totally engaging, sometimes dangerous, sometimes discouraging and often relevant to the late fifties and early sixties changes in civil rights and the evolution of the middle class in the USA at that time. While it skips years, I do NOT find it disconnected or loosely connected. It is at all times about a neighborhood and about a man and his values and choices in the face of an ever changing landscape at the same address in Harlem. The Audible version was terrific with a narrator who nailed every character, male, female, rich, poor, criminal or not. Although with regard to criminals, with a few notable exceptions (Ray’s wife, kids and his employees) that’s kind of everyone in this book. This book is just so worth the time I gave it, which is probably longer on an audio book where there is no skimming. Highly recommend! 

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