Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle (Fleet) reviewed by
Diane de Beer
Reading has been good to me these past few months. Just like the last book I read/reviewed, this is another author who always has me running to find his latest offering.
Following the deeply political Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, both Pulitzer-Prize-winners, Harlem Shuffle doesn’t disappoint. And like these two former books, while not overtly so, it also has a political thread running throughout. How could it not if it is Whitehead and Harlem is part of the novel’s name?
What grabs one though (and having heard Colson speak about the novel) is how different this is to anything else he has written – the story, that is. Not the writing, that’s as brilliant as ever.
He has a way with words, shuffles with your emotions this way and that (even had me wiping away a tear towards the end) and takes you into a world far away from your own and yet, turns it into something familiar and recognisable. He also has you smiling at the way he writes. Sometimes it is funny, but it is also his way of turning a phrase, his vocabulary and the way he paints pictures with his colourful language.
I truly love reading his writing.
Here is a conversational segue which slips in while telling of a death-defying journey his main character is in the process of making:
His accomplice asks him if he knows how to use the gun and Colson writes the following: “There had been one time in high school when his father was out and rats had been squealing for hours behind his building. That anyone can hear it and not go crazy was inconceivable. He knew where his father kept his gun. On the closet shelf where his mother had kept her hat boxes, Big Mike had a shoebox with bullets and knives and what Carney later figured was a makeshift garotte. And this month’s gun. The day of the rats it had been a .38 snub nose that sat like a big black frog on Carney’s thirteen-year-old palm. It was loud. He didn’t know if he hit any critters, but they scattered and Carney lived in fear for weeks that his father would find out he’s been in his stuff. When he opened the box months later, there was a different pistol inside.
He told Pepper he knew how to use it.”
Naturally it is also the story he tells. And everything that comes in such layered fashion. This, for example, is how he describes his wife Elizabeth, who works for a travel agency that finds safe routes and cities for black people to travel through and to in the US:
“On the wall at Elizabeth’s office they had a map of the United States and the Caribbean with pins and red marker to indicate the cities and towns and routes the Black Star promoted. Stay on the path and you’ll be safe, eat in peace, sleep in peace, breathe in peace; stray and beware. Work together and we can subvert their evil order. It was a map of the black nation inside the white world, part of the bigger thing but its own self, independent, with its own constitution. If we didn’t help one another we’d be lost out there.”
Our main guy, Carney, is described thus before we even meet him: “Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked …”
And then the story begins. It is about two cousins who for a time in their lives lived like brothers and formed an unbreakable bond. Carney was the good one, and his cousin Freddie the one who got him into trouble.
But that’s only part of it, even if it drives much of the tale. Our unlikely hero is also married to Elizabeth and with their two children, he dreams of creating a very specific life for his family. With that in mind, he takes regular solo walks to a certain part of Manhattan where he hopes – someday – to move to so that he can live the life of his dreams.
In his daily life, he owns a furniture store, which he bought with ill-gotten gains. But now he hopes to keep it straight and yet, he is constantly pulled into another world – until it threatens his dreams.
It’s the story being told on the surface and that cannot be ignored because there’s a rhythm that keeps you transfixed as Whitehead ever so often meanders and detours to deal in metaphors of a different kind. It’s not your regular crime novel or family saga, even though all of that is there.
It’s about specific lives, their doings determined by their race, which is determined by another race and even more.
How Whitehead manages to shape even something that feels from the start like a crime caper is astonishing. And he does this with such sleight of hand that you never feel manipulated as a reader What he is sharing is simply the lives of others and in this way we get to know how some people complicate (with intent and sometimes deadly consequences) those lives of others.
If you haven’t yet delved into the world and words of Colson Whitehead, you’re in for a treat.