Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead [8/10]

Harlem Shuffle,” although nothing like Colson Whitehead’s other weighty novels and superficially shallow, is actually an ambitious, highly literate tour de force. Our hero is Ray Carney, a black owner of a furniture store in Harlem, seemingly conventional but, under the surface, a self-rescued son of a mobster and smart as all hell. This is Harlem of the early 1960s, just as the civil rights saga is taking off, and the author’s grandiloquent aim is to pay homage to not only the place but the time, digging into the hidden structures of America. When Ray’s criminal cousin drops him into a heist, Ray is forced to confront his past, which is also his present, and try to survive and resume his desperate quest for legitimacy and prosperity. Using a dense, rhythmic style that demands close reading, the author builds on the tropes of crime thrillers to lay bare Ray’s hopes and dreams. Wry humor pervades every scene. Three adventures, each of them deviously complex, beset Ray, and I, for one, followed each with rapt glee. Harlem Shuffle manages somehow to entertain and simultaneously dig deep, deep, deep.

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