Colson Whitehead is certainly a story teller. In Harlem Shuffle, he tells the story of Ray Carney, whom he describes as “only slightly bent when it comes to being crooked.” Carney’s father broke knees for a living, and Carney hated him, so Carney has earned a degree in business and has worked hard to keep his furniture store going. He only occasionally deals in suspect merchandise.
However, Carney’s cousin Freddie, who grew up like a brother, is the type of guy who is always up to something and it never turns out well. In the first section of the book, Freddie is planning a heist with some guys, and when they need a fence, he suggests Carney. Carney knows this is way above his head, so he says no. He is tipped off that Freddie is in trouble when he gets a call from some men working for Chink Montague, a notorious criminal, looking for something that belongs to Chink. It turns out Freddie has not conveyed Carney’s refusal to the gang, and soon Carney finds himself in possession of a large emerald necklace that is part of the robbery of a hotel vault.
This novel is set in late 50’s and 60’s Harlem, and vividly depicts the events of this period at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. Whitehead is clever about earning the readers’ sympathy for Carney despite his misdeeds. He makes it clear how difficult it was during this time for an African-American who starts with nothing to make a success of himself. Aside from Freddie’s plots, Carney has to deal with the slights of his in-laws, who think their daughter married beneath herself, as well as paying off both the thugs and the police, being cheated by supposedly respectable businessmen, and so on. Another absorbing novel by Whitehead.