“Harlem Shuffle” is the latest novel from two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author Colson Whitehead. Ostensibly a heist novel, “Harlem Shuffle” sees Whitehead return to the familiar digs of New York City, where the majority of his published works are set. Whitehead releases “Harlem Shuffle” hot off the heels of consecutive Pulitzer Prizes in Fiction for “The Underground Railroad” in 2016 and “Nickel Boys” in 2019.
“Harlem Shuffle” releases into a world changed by a global pandemic, but Whitehead isn’t unfamiliar with bending his works to the spirit of the times. “Harlem Shuffle” was initially slated for the 2019 release “Nickel Boys” received, but Whitehead’s reaction to the Border Crisis of 2017 spurred him into releasing another serious novel in the vein of “The Underground Railroad.” “Harlem Shuffle” is a more lighthearted affair than his previous two works, but it is not at all without seriousness in both theme and content.
The spirits of film noir and traditional heist novels are present throughout the book, from the voice Whitehead lends to the prose — here imitating Raymond Chandler, there crafting a picture right out of “The Maltese Falcon”— to the plot itself which follows three separate heists. But the gravity of the situation is never in question. Early on the stakes are established; Rey Carney is a mostly straight-up businessman with a wife and a daughter and another child on the way. Hounding him at every turn are the expectations of his in-laws and the legacy of his father, a notorious criminal. Whitehead raises many questions beyond whether or not this heist will go as planned: how a man from little means is to match up to society’s positive and negative expectations of him, how the world asks the most of those with the least, and how far a good man will bend himself to protect his own. The cast of characters are men and women of their time; the dialogue, dress, and attitudes are what you’d expect of 1960s Harlem. However, there is nothing dated about the circumstances being depicted, or the world we’re shown in “Harlem Shuffle.”
In “Nickel Boys” and “The Underground Railroad,” Whitehead paints a stunning, if horrific, picture of a racist and brutal American South. The horrors of slavery and the brutal inhumanity of Southern Reform schools are topics that bring with them macabre expectations. “Harlem Shuffle” sees Whitehead simultaneously expand and narrow his scope. In it, he spins a tale of a man trying to provide for his family while navigating a world of classism, colorism, and criminal brutality—a tonic for the day as much as “Nickel Boys” and “The Underground Railroad” were. In a society that’s sure to bend you, all you can control is how crooked you’ll become.
The value of this novel is not at all limited to what it has to say on the various themes and topics presented in the work. Whitehead proves himself a master of the written word by displaying his versatility. The prose in his previous works fit the world being depicted, and there’s no departure here in that regard. Whitehead unleashes upon the reader reams of dazzling prose that serves to weave a vibrant tapestry of 1960s Harlem. There is a distinct detective novel flavor throughout, as if the film detective’s ever present tape recorder — or typewriter, as was the case in “L.A. Confidential”— had been given sentience and then set to writing its own story. Readers familiar with Whitehead will at first find this to be a surprise, but it is a pleasant one that becomes sweeter as the book progresses and finds its own comfortable rhythm. As a fan, a devotee even, of Film Noir and detective stories, I found Colson’s pastiche of those works to be exquisite and honest. Whitehead’s writing doesn’t demand to be seen, he doesn’t beg you to take note of the familiar voice he is employing, it simply grips you unbidden.
Fans of Whitehead will enjoy this new release, and fans of crime fiction hoping to ease their way into contemporary literary fiction will find “Harlem Shuffle”to be a fantastic starting point into that world.