“Harlem Shuffle” proves the art of mixing genres of Colson Whitehead

Alain Raimbault, contributor of the reading group 20 Minute Booksrecommend you Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead, published on January 5, 2023 by Éditions Albin Michel.

His favorite quote:

All Carney had to do was walk five minutes in any direction, and the immaculate townhouses of one generation became the shoot houses of the next, hovels told the same story of abandonment, and businesses emerged ransacked and destroyed by a few nights of riots. What had sparked the fire this week? A white police officer had shot a young black man with three bullets in the body. American know-how in all its splendor: we create wonders, we create injustice, we never stop. »

Why this book?

  • Because this novel takes us back to America in the early 1960s, in the turbulent times of the civil rights movements, the Vietnam War and the conquest of space. The city of New York, and more specifically Harlem, is described in detail, with the names of streets, shops, brands, bars and movie or jazz celebrities. This effect of reality takes the reader to an old world, violent, vibrant, where injustice reigns supreme and where to survive, everyone goes about their shenanigans.
  • Because the plot of the novel is detective. The reader follows the frantic race of Ray Carney, an honest furniture dealer by day and a fence by night. His cousin Freddy never ceases to compromise him in sordid affairs from which Carney tries throughout the novel to get out, preferably alive, which is far from obvious. Time passes, Freddie survives by a miracle but continues to sink. Will he definitely lead Carney to hell? Everything leads us to believe.
  • Because the author highlights two opposing worlds, geographically separated in the city but also socially, judicially and historically. That of the whites, who will always win thanks to the institutional corruption from which they benefit, and that of the blacks who, like Carney, try to get there at all costs. By the way, the story of the 1964 riots following the murder of a young black man by a white policeman is blood-curdling, and it sadly reminds us that in this 21st century, this kind of event continues.
  • Because this novel plunges us back into the Harlem of Chester Himes, a poor, violent, but slightly less desperate neighborhood from the pen of Colson Whitehead, whose main character is an ambitious entrepreneur who, despite daily challenges, is gradually getting out of precariousness. And the reader can only think back to the authors who were able to describe this New York so well in the post-war years, such as Donald Westlake, Ed McBain or Jerome Charyn.

The essentials in 2 minutes

The plot. Ray Carney, furniture dealer, tries to make as much profit as possible through his trade and the resale of more or less legal objects. In addition, his cousin Freddie constantly involves him in shady business. Ray tries to navigate between his business and his underworld connections.

Characters. Ray Carney, furniture dealer; his wife Elizabeth; his cousin Freddie; Pepper, bodyguard; criminals Miami Joe and Chink Montague; Munson, crooked cop; the VanWyck family.

Places. New York, Harlem.

The time. Late 1950s and early 1960s.

The author. Colson Whitehead is an American novelist born in New York in 1969. He has twice received the prestigious Pulitzer Prize, like Faulkner or Updike. It is translated into more than sixty languages.

This book has been read fascinated by the realism of the descriptions, I really thought I was in Harlem, and I constantly wonder how Carney will get out of the mess his cousin has just gotten him into again. The suspense is endless, I devoured this book.

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“Harlem Shuffle” proves the art of mixing genres of Colson Whitehead