Crime Does Too Pay
Colson Whitehead, "Harlem Shuffle" (2021, 336 pp.)
Like most staffers at The Village Voice in the ‘90s, where two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead was merely our impressive young Black colleague until 1999, when he published one more novel than any other up-and-comer around there had managed, I know Colson a little—he even helped out on Pazz & Jop one short-handed year. So of course I read his novels: the debut The Intuitionist, its protagonist a Black female elevator inspector; 2001’s John Henry Days, a racially charged satire of press junket culture, and a little later 2009’s Sag Harbor, about a teenaged summer in the only racially integrated community in the greater Hamptons. Sag Harbor was my favorite because the earlier books wove in metafictional devices that spoiled the ride for me a little. But all such qualms were blown away by his first Pulitzer winner: 2016’s The Underground Railroad, a novel so appalled by American chattel slavery that it felt compelled to respond with the metafictional stroke of imagining Harriet Tubman’s underground railroad as a physical fact: a secret subway complete with conductors and workmen stretching from Georgia to Indiana.
The Underground Railway generated an award-winning 10-episode Amazon Prime series whose first and last episodes center on a whipping and a massacre so graphic they’re almost too much to watch, which is just one of the many things I admire about it. Before that filmic foray, however, Whitehead published yet another novel: 2019’s literal, scrupulously researched The Nickel Boys, centered on a Florida reform school that in the 1960s exploited the integration then legally in place with grimly detailed racial abuses as hard to bear as The Underground Railway’s televised atrocities. It seemed both surprising and a tremendous artistic achievement that the holy Pulitzer should go to two closely spaced novels by the same author in four years. But as much as I admire the earlier one’s excavation of an atrocity so indigestible that a century and a half after it was outlawed it still generates raw injustices and cognitive dissonances that threaten democracy itself, there’s a sense in which I’m even more impressed by the simultaneously metafictional and hyperrealist surprise denouement of The Nickel Boys.
Enter last year’s Harlem Shuffle. Although shame-shame-shame it wasn’t even a Pulitzer finalist, reviewers gave it plenty of respect and indeed thought—three whose efforts I especially admire are Jennifer Wilson in The Atlantic, Denny S. Bryce on NPR, and Danette Chavez for The A.V. Club. Following Whitehead’s promotional lead, most coverage slotted it as a “crime novel,” which initially had me licking my chops in the hope that this reduced to “detective novel,” a subgenre that from Dashiell Hammett to Walter Mosley signifies a tightly yet bafflingly plotted whodunit that snaps shut at the end thanks to the observant ratiocination and physical courage of a sleuth like Mosley’s Easy Rawlins or Hammett’s shifting roster of ops. But a “crime novel” is what Whitehead intended, because many of Harlem Shuffle’s characters break the law one way or another and quite a few make their living at it.
That said, however, reviewers seem less struck than I am by how proud Whitehead’s barely criminal protagonist Ray Carney is of the well-situated 125th Street furniture store that remains not primarily a front for the fencing he turns to on occasion but a legitimate enterprise where he makes a decent living and as such a badge of honor. Although his father was an all too small-time thug, only child Carney is the proud possessor of a Queens College business B.A. married to an accountant’s daughter who works for an anti-racist travel agency and grew up in one of the rare integrated buildings on Riverside Drive. So he makes it a point of pride to know exactly what merchandise he’s selling. Whitehead’s dogged research has been up front since The Intuitionist hipped readers to details of elevator mechanics they’d known less than naught of and first surfaces here when a pregnant wife who ducks into his shop with her husband for a sit on an Argent sectional on page 13 ends up buying one on time even though Ray has promised himself to cut down on installment plans because too many buyers back out. After all, as Ray has told this potential customer he can’t blame for resting her feet, “The modular setup makes every inch of your room livable.” And in the final chapter his new partner, a beat-up semi-retired gunman named Pepper, spends his hours at Carney’s Furniture in the “Egon recliner with the E-Z Smooth Lever Action” he’s long coveted.
True, in between these moments of blessed comfort come three big crimes and more smaller ones than you can count, including Carney’s revenge on the two-faced higher-up at Harlem’s Dumas Club who’d hinted that $500 in cash would ease Ray’s entry into this high-tone clique where his patronizing father-in-law is also a bigshot. Also on display in the long denouement are the July 1964 Harlem riots that began when a cop shot and killed a fleeing ninth-grader. But historically redolent though this six-day uprising was, Whitehead sees more political relevance in the fictional tribulations of Ray Carney and his cousin turned de facto younger brother Freddie. Although Freddie’s mother was a nurse where Ray’s dad was a crook, he was always the fuckup of the pair—in part, we come to feel, because Ray’s father was present enough to bequeath him an old pickup truck with some seed money in it while Freddie’s dad was a womanizing rounder who’d long since escaped to Florida and was barely in his life at all. Freddie’s refrain, probably the last words Ray hears him utter: “I didn’t mean to get you in trouble.”
Freddie brings on the novel’s denouement by hooking up with a gay white Princeton man named Linus Van Wyck, a familiar surname with a royal resonance Whitehead makes the most of. New Yorkers recognize it not because they happen to know that Robert Van Wyck was elected the first mayor of the five consolidated boroughs of New York City in 1898 (and was so corrupt he lasted just one term) but because the Van Wyck Expressway was named after him. But in addition the name’s Dutchness evokes the Peter Stuyvesant roots of a New York that was called New Amsterdam for a century-plus ending in 1664, and although the Van Wyck family is in point of sociopolitical fact no longer prominent in today’s NYC, it was shrewd and then some for Whitehead to pretend instead that they remain financial titans here. “Listening to his father-in-law gloat about screwing over the government had taught Carney about rich people and how they hold on to their money,” and so he’s unsurprised to learn not just that the Van Wycks have courteous, matter-of-factly ruthless attorneys ready to threaten Freddie with prison or worse if he gets between them and their feckless scion, but that at least one such attorney has gunsels on retainer to put muscle on his demands—white ones, of course. With the Harlem riots just over, Ray takes Pepper down Park Avenue in his dad’s pickup to meet the enemy, and as I’ve indicated both survive. But not on the scale of the Van Wycks.
Ultimately, Harlem Shuffle is as much a historical novel about Black life as The Underground Railroad, one that does without metafiction, documenting the relatively recent past of the ‘50s and ‘60s with an emphasis on the tangible. It ends a few months after Ray’s big Van Wyck meet-up, when Ray travels downtown to have a look at a site at Barclay and Greenwich marked with a sign that reads: “VAN WYCK REALTY: BUILDING THE FUTURE.” As it happens, this location is where the novel began nearly a decade before—geographically, at least. Carney’s destination that day was a repair shop called Samuel’s Amazing Radio, where Samuel Aronowitz was one of the few store owners in the neighborhood who didn’t seem to notice Ray was Black when he walked in the door. Aronowitz could fix almost anything, which meant that back in the day he could turn the bum radios that came Ray’s way via various routes legit and otherwise into salable items for his “lightly used” department. Now the old man’s shop has been obliterated by redevelopment just like all the ones that turned Ray away, and when he peers through the plywood fencing around the construction site he’s taken aback: “The hole went four stories deep, deeper than he’d ever seen. Underground parking? Or is that how far down you have to go to get these big skyscrapers up these days?”
The “Battery Park scheme” is what Ray dubs the new project. “The neighborhood was gone, razed. Everything four blocks south of the New York Telephone Building and four blocks east of the miserable West Side Highway had been demolished and erased for the World Trade Center site, down to the street signs and traffic lights.”
Carney’s analysis of this scheme Whitehead has already provided before folding in the details. “It was a racket, the whole thing.”