Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
9/14/21; 336 pages
Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead is a very highly recommended historical fiction novel set in Harlem during the early 1960's.
Ray Carney makes a living for his family selling furniture, some gently used. It is 1959 and he and his wife Elizabeth are expecting their second child. They hope to be able to move into a bigger apartment someday. Despite his background he strives to generally live an upstanding life - with a few exceptions when his cousin Freddy gives him some random stolen item to sell. Then his life begins to change when Freddy tells a group planning to rob the Hotel Theresa, the "Waldorf of Harlem," that Ray can act as a fence for the stolen items. Once Ray's name is out there, the struggle begins as a group of several different underworld figures enter his life, including the mobster Chink Montague, WWII veteran Pepper, the purple-suited Miami Joe, among others and he begins leading a double life. Suddenly Ray needs to decide how much loyalty he owes to Freddy versus his care for his family and business.
Whitehead shows amazing skill and care in creating his characters and setting them into a specific time and place in history, from 1959 to the Harlem riots of 1964. The atmosphere and setting makes you feel as if you were there, in 1960's Harlem and experiencing everything along with Ray. The compelling plot follows Ray's dilemmas in this family and crime novel that can be funny, serious, and somber, but is engaging from start to finish. It is an entertaining novel that captures the time period and lovingly tells the story of one man and his family. The writing is sumptuous and memorable.
Ray is an appealing protagonist and you will like him, always hoping he finds a way through the dilemmas placed in his path. The tests of his character are numerous and what Ray learns along the way is just as important as what he learned in the past. In a real sense Harlem is another character in the story as Whitehead lovingly captures it during this period in time.
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday.