Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead review: A zingy social drama

 

 

During the Harlem Renaissance that coincided with the Jazz Age in 1920s America, ‘Harlemania’ took hold in upper Manhattan nightclubs, as wealthy white thrill-seekers bopped to Duke Ellington hothouse stomps and bumped up against West Indian migrant calypso and the ragtime of tin-pan pianos. Black folk heritage – so called “primitive” art and music – was the mainstay of this arts movement that flourished in pre-civil rights New York. Orson Welles’s notorious “voodoo” version of Macbeth, staged in Harlem in 1935, was the movement’s last gasp; while it lasted, ‘Harlemania’ instilled pride in a number of African American writers and artists.

 

Colson Whitehead’s gloriously entertaining tenth novel, Harlem Shuffle, unfolds in uptown New York four decades on from the renaissance. The area’s “hot syncopated fascination” (as the Jamaican novelist Claude McKay called it) has long gone. Instead of the honky-tonk parlours and jazz-enthused flappers of the Cotton Club are crumbling industrial warehouses and soot-begrimed tenements. An element of the renaissance remains, however, in Black Star Travel, which arranges tourist trips for the black community, and in the Rotary-like Dumas Club named after the mixed-race French writer Alexandre Dumas, whose father was born in sugar-rich Haiti. Ray Carney, a furniture salesman with a store on Harlem’s bustling 125th Street, embodies the area’s aspirations to social self-improvement. His wife Elizabeth is proud to work for Black Star, while her parents live on Strivers’ Row, a milieu of affluent black Harlemites situated on the “good” side of the subway tracks.

 

By day Ray runs a respectable business selling fancy dinettes, wingback armchairs and Collins-Hathaway recliners with “smooth hydraulic action”; by night he acts as a middleman for Harlem’s criminal underworld. Elizabeth knows nothing of this dubious secret life. An army of gangland cuties with Damon Runyonesque nicknames such as Cheap Brucie and Miami Joe bring her husband TVs, radios and “tasteful” lamps to sell. A percentage of Carney Furniture merchandise is dangerously hot. Ray’s father, a Harlem hood, had bequeathed his own crookedness to his son.

 

Ray remains small fry (he “was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked”) until his layabout cousin Freddie implicates him in a plan to burgle the nearby Hotel Theresa. The “Waldorf of Harlem” was where America’s upper strata of black society kept their safe deposit boxes. (Among the clientele were Sammy Davis Jr, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll and other black performer-activists who appeared on American TV in the late 1950s and early 1960s.) Inevitably the heist goes wrong. It threatens to disgrace black middle-class Harlem, and put Ray and his family in prison. Much of the stolen jewelry turns out to be paste anyway.

 

 

In archly comic prose (“He did not go to church. He was his own sermon”), Colson conjures Kennedy-era New York in all its tatterdemalion glory, from the pool halls along Amsterdam Avenue to the “manic boil” of 47th Street’s Diamond District. A double Pulitzer prize winner for his 2016 slave novel Underground Railroad and the hard-hitting The Nickel Boys (2019), Colson remains one of the most eclectic writers at work in the US today. The influence of caper films such as Rififi and Uncut Gems shows in the dark comedy attendant on the Theresa venture, but Colson is his own sardonic, street-savvy voice.

 

The novel ends with the Harlem riots of 1964 when, in a foreboding of George Floyd’s murder, a 15-year-old African American named James Powell was shot dead by a policeman in front of passersby. The black activists Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X began to call for a recuperation of “African consciousness” in the mind of the modern African American (a strategy that evolved to its unsophisticated from in today’s obsession with “respect”). The dark area of self-denial in the psyche of Harlem’s middle class black community – the African slave heritage – was to be embraced rather than rejected. Colson’s is not an overtly political voice, but Harlem Shuffle is a zingy social drama, that combines flights of high comedy with reflections on the nature of black self-help and black empowerment in America. A more purely enjoyable novel is unlikely to emerge this year.

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