Colson Whitehead (2021) Harlem Shuffle.

Colson Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel about a magical underground railroad that took slaves from the South not to safety, but not to slavery either. Harlem Shuffle has no such tropes. Ray Carney is trying to get by selling furniture on 125th Street.

1959, America is on the up and up. Not that you’d know if you were a black man. He needs to walk the line of being crooked enough to be straight. Everyone is on the take from the cop on the beat to the protection racket run by hoodlums—hoodlums like Carney’s dad, who left him his old truck, with a surprise package in the spare wheel that set his world spinning. Elizabeth, his wife, is expecting his second child. And his father-in-law is on his case about getting his daughter somewhere better to live. He lives in the pretty part of black Harlem, Striver’s Row. They have their own club—like the Mason’s—in which they meet to help each other get a bigger share of the pie. They’re different kinds of crooks, because the law might not work for them, but it don’t work against them so much. Only fools pay tax. They could be almost pass as white, where the real crooks live on a pedestal. It’s disappointment that Elizabeth married Ray not only because he’s not in their class, but also because he’s blacker than they’d like. Black enough to be crooked. Cheap enough to get caught.

As his friend Pierre remarks. ‘Sneaky gets you paid around here… One thing I learned in my job is life is cheap, and when things start getting expensive it gets cheaper still’.  

1961. Then there are the friends Carney keeps. He grew up with Freddie on the top bunk after his mum died and his dad dumped him at her sister’s. Freddie has got his own way of seeing things and doing things, and hard work doesn’t figure prominently. Freddie drops little things off he picked up. He’s the brother he never had and not as straight as Carney.

‘At the Maharajah they showed these juvenile-delinquent and hot rodder movies featuring angry young white kids. They didn’t make movies about their brown-skinned Harlem versions, but they existed, with their gut hatred of how things worked. If they were good people they marched and protested and tried to fix what they hated about the system. If they were bad people they went to work for people like Dixon…pushers and half-assed muscle.’

Carney tried to keep above the fray, but Freddie kept dragging him down. Freddie got a job as a getaway driver (or so he thought) for a crew that set out to rob the Hotel Theresa, the ‘Waldorf of Harlem’, where world champion boxers and prominent entertainers hung out. Freddie puts him on the sticking place when he puts his name forward as the man that can fence the goods. Now Carney is a face, one of the best known nobody, in Harlem as a cop of the take puts it.

1964, same old shit, cops shooting black kids, rioting on the streets and America bombing Vietnam. But the skyline of New York is changing. And Freddie hits up with a white college kid that likes to score dope and live the beatnik life. Whether he’s straight of gay doesn’t matter to Freddie. His family fried his brain a few times to cure him of wayward tendencies, but they came to a truce until he decides to rob them. White people with money that own half of New York is the wrong kind of heat. Freddie’s brought it down on Carey, like an act of an angry white God. Everyone wants a piece of him. The crooked or the straight life, it doesn’t really matter. He’s bought a safe ‘big enough to hold his secrets’, but the lock’s been sprung. What matters is survival.