Crime, Class, and the City: Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle (2021)
by Valentina Lopez Liendo
Where do you go as a writer after being awarded back-to-back Pulitzer Prizes? Somewhere where you “get to be funny again,” as Colson Whitehead states (Feldman 2021). In his last two novels, Whitehead explored the horrors of slavery in Underground Railroad and the traumatic violence of segregation in Nickel Boys. Now, he returns to his literary project of genre exploration. After playing with the conventions of hard-boiled detective fiction (The Intuitionist, 1999), coming-of-age narratives (Sag Harbor, 2009) and zombie fiction (Zone One, 2011), his most recent publication takes inspiration from mid-century heist films and crime fiction (Feldman 2021; Jenkins 2021). Harlem Shuffle, published in September 2021, is set in the eponymous neighborhood in the 1960s and follows furniture salesman Ray Carney as he comes to embrace his criminal side. The book consists of three novellas, each centering on a different job, or “caper,” as Whitehead prefers to call them (Gross 2022:42:04-42:12). One novella is a classic heist in the form of a hotel robbery, the second follows a revenge plot and the last is set in the aftermath of a third, botched job.
In typical Whitehead fashion, he offers a refreshing take on the genre. Whitehead centers the novellas on the fence, i.e. a broker of stolen goods. The fence is a rarely explored figure of the heist film genre, as he notes (Gross 2022:40.07-40.48).1 The son of a notorious Harlem criminal, Ray is a proud self-made man. He attended Queens College and owns a furniture store, which provides Harlem’s population with both luxury furniture and “gently used” appliances of dubious provenance (Whitehead 2021:3). Occasionally, Ray brokers stolen jewelry, though he regards this line of business as merely supplementary. He sees himself as “a wall between the criminal world and the straight world” (59), while the narrator notes that Ray was “only slightly bent when it came to being crooked” (31). That is, until Ray’s never-do-well cousin Freddie enlists him in the “criminal yellow pages” (151). Now officially part of the Harlem underground, Ray becomes a fence for stolen goods from larger-scale operations.
The first of said jobs is the robbery of the Theresa Hotel, the former center of Black glitz and glamour in a segregated New York City. Whitehead assembles a colorful array of gangsters, including the gang leader Miami Joe, famous for his purple zoot suits, a white safe cracker named Arthur who crossed “the color line when it came to safes and locks and alarms” (Whitehead 2021:40), and Pepper, the muscle, a veteran who feels completed rather than traumatized by the violence he experienced during World War II. The first novella delights in the genre conventions of the heist: Whitehead consciously chose a low-tech setting for his novel (Jenkins 2021), and thus emphasizes the hands-on nature of the job. Its sleek gangsters display a sullen professionalism and, as generic convention dictates, the crew’s efforts are endangered by an unpredictable element – in this case that of human nature (Lee 2014:4–6; Sloniowski and Leach 2017:par. 5-7). A novel as much about upward striving as about criminal efforts, Harlem Shuffle centers issues of class. Throughout the novel, we witness Ray’s tense relationship with his petit bourgeois in-laws, who remain convinced their daughter settled for a “rug peddler” beneath her station (Whitehead 2021:19). In the first novella, Ray aims to expand his furniture store and move his family to a larger apartment, away from the subway tracks and the poverty of his childhood. Whitehead contrasts his driven protagonist with the aimless Freddie and the relationship between the two remains one of the strongest aspects of the novel. When Ray insists he is but a humble furniture salesman after his cousin tries to recruit him for a caper, Freddie offers words of encouragement: “You don’t know what you can do, Ray-Ray. You never have. That’s why you have me” (26).
The second novella follows Ray on a personal vendetta against the president of the Dumas club, a social club for Harlem’s elite, after the club president took Ray’s bribe but rejected his application for membership. As various characters imply, Ray was rejected due to his family history and his dark skin color. Unfortunately, Ray’s revenge plan remains somewhat convoluted and readers may struggle to follow his scheme. The connection between the various steps he takes does not become clear until the very end of the section. While this novella may be the weakest of the three regarding plot structure, it shines with Whitehead’s explorations of a hidden New York: we follow Ray’s excursions, such as his regular visits to a jeweler near Time Square, who schools Ray’s eye for appraising stolen goods. Overall, Harlem Shuffle shines in its situatedness. Whitehead has always shown particular fondness for New York in his work. The city features prominently in his fiction, be it as the Gotham-like setting of The Intuitionist 1999, or the post-apocalyptic cityscape of Zone One (2011). In recent interviews, Whitehead emphasizes the “location scouting” he did in preparation for the novel as well as the discussions he had about 1960s Harlem with his parents (Jenkins 2021). Harlem, and by extension, New York City itself emerges almost as a protagonist: Whitehead uncovers a hidden city within the city, providing vivid descriptions of New York during “crime’s hours […] when the straight world slept and the bent got to work” (Whitehead 2021:136).
With the third novella, Whitehead returns to the sleekness of the first. The events of this section unfold after Freddie asks Ray to keep a mysterious briefcase safe while he goes into hiding. In the following days, Ray is visited by the police and various gangsters who question him about his cousin’s whereabouts and warn him that Freddie has now slighted someone with financial and political “connections,” a “big Park Avenue family” (Whitehead 2021:239). This last novella zooms out of Harlem and takes readers to the affluence of Manhattan. Each section seems to grow in scope – from the local robbery of the Hotel Theresa, to a vengeance plot centered on a representative of Harlem’s social elite, to a job involving real-estate moguls. The third novella in particular contrasts the different facets of New York City, as Ray moves from decayed motels to pristine office buildings.
Set against the backdrop of the Harlem riots of 1964, this section illustrates the wider societal structures Whiteheads characters are embedded in, overall one of the strengths of his fiction. The riots, which followed the death of James Powell, a Black teenager, at the hands of a white police officer,2 both inform this section of the novel and are somewhat detached from it. Ray’s main concern during the unrest is keeping his store safe. His secretary stencils a “Negro Owned & Operated” sign and he keeps nightly vigils during the riots (Whitehead 2021:214). Meanwhile, Freddie is more concerned with how to get lunch during the protest marches. Various characters discuss the riots and their meanings, though even the civil rights lawyer working on the case seems jaded. He declares, “the city will pay because millions and millions are still cheaper than putting a true price on killing a black boy” (242). Characters remember the ’43 riots and some decry the lack of genuine change. Notably, Whitehead finished this novella in May 2020, i.e., before the recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests. When asked about the urgency of the issue for the current moment, Whitehead remarks with a certain weariness: “you’re never predicting the future when it comes to police brutality. You’re just waiting for the next high-profile incident” (Jenkins 2021).
Whitehead has long made playing with elements of popular genres part of his literary project. This strategy may come with some drawbacks depending on the genre; Harlem Shuffle’s wiseguy narrator and the jive-talking, typified gangsters might not be to everyone’s liking. However, centered as it is on the figure of the fence, the novel shines when Whitehead explores Ray’s duality. His protagonist both figures as a businessman who aims to become the first Black retailer of upscale Bella Fontaine furniture and a competent fence, firmly entrenched in the economy of the “vast, secret city” behind the fronts (Whitehead 2021:253). As Ray climbs the social ladder, the scope of the novel grows and Whitehead paints a detailed portrait of the city and its underbelly. Surprisingly (or perhaps, unsurprisingly, depending on your outlook), Ray’s criminal enterprises are followed by success in his more respectable line of work. The tension between Ray’s descent towards the criminal underworld and ascent in polite society is one of the many ironies Whitehead relishes in. Through the lens of the heist film, Whitehead offers an exploration of the twists and turns of upwards striving – one that is also a highly enjoyable read.
1. Even in secondary literature on the genre there is little about the figure of the fence, though researchers note, as does Whitehead, that they are typically dishonest figures who rip off the crew after their hard work in planning and executing the heist (Gross 2022:40.07-40:29, for secondary literature see for example Sloniowski 2017; Lee 2014). ↩
2. If you want to learn more about the riots, the NPR podcast Code Sw!tch published an episode on the topic. The Civil Rights Digital Library also has a short entry on the 1964 riots. ↩
About the Author
Valentina López Liendo is a PhD candidate in the DFG Graduiertenkolleg “Authority and Trust” at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies. Her research focuses on contemporary literary authorship in the U.S. as exemplified by Colson Whitehead. Get in touch via e-mail or Twitter.
Feldman, Lucy. 2021. “How the Energetic Cover of Colson Whitehead’s ‘Harlem Shuffle’ Hints at the Heist Within.” Time, February 2, 2021. https://time.com/5935152/harlem-shuffle-colson-whitehead-cover/.
Gross, Terry. 2022. “Best Of: The World Of Film Noir / Colson Whitehead.” Fresh Air. https://www.npr.org/2021/12/29/1068807189/best-of-the-world-of-film-noir-colson-whitehead?t=1643386681199.
Jenkins, Craig. 2021. “How Colson Whitehead Pulled It Off.” Vulture, September 9, 2021. https://www.vulture.com/article/colson-whitehead-harlem-shuffle-interview.html.
Lee, Daryl. 2014. The Heist Film: Stealing with Style. London ; New York: Columbia University Press.
Sloniowski, Jeannette. 2017. “All for Naught: The American Heist Film in the Fifties.” In The Best Laid Plans: Interrogating the Heist Film, edited by Jim Leach and Jeannette Sloniowski, e-book. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
Sloniowski, Jeannette, and Jim Leach. 2017. “Introduction … of Heists and Men.” In The Best Laid Plans: Interrogating the Heist Film, edited by Jim Leach and Jeannette Sloniowski, e-book. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
Whitehead, Colson. 2021. Harlem Shuffle. New York: Doubleday.
Header / Harlem street: Captured March 28, 2010 by Pablo G. Pando, https://www.flickr.com/photos/pablopando/4579597491.
Harlem street corner: Captured March 28, 2010 by Pablo G. Pando, https://www.flickr.com/photos/pablopando/4579607053/.