Free: got this new book from my library, which purchased it on my recommendation (and, as always, gets a chunk of change from me at year end as a blanket thank you! libraries are great!)
This book started off somewhat slowly for me, which I found surprising since clarity of vision and scene has always stood out to me as one of Whitehead’s strengths. In both The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, the setting is almost as important (more important?) than the characters who move about it. Depicting the horror is how Whitehead can get you to understand what’s at stake.
And yet, for all that it takes place in a place (Harlem) that I actually know obliquely, I found it hard to grab a threshold in the initial action of this book. The blurb makes it seem like it’s a thriller/heist caper, and you don’t get that sense at the outset. The places are a bit blurry and the motivations are a bit unclear and then the characters start clicking, their routines start making sense, and I couldn’t put this book down until the very end because I needed to know what happened.
We follow Ray Carney through three separate epochs of his life, all anchored in the same Harlem neighborhoods where he’s lived his entire life. At all times he’s a furniture store owner just on this side of straight–some of the pieces might have had a previous home, sure, but he’s able to keep the lights on and pay the rent through the side door. It’s a small time game for a man with medium sized ambitions, but when the game gets large is when Ray’s life takes a turn for the adventurous.
Ray’s constantly tugged in many ways and a walking contradiction. In comparison to his cousin he’s managed to gain a toehold into wealth and stability…by using cash that his definitely on the wrong side of the tracks father had squirreled away and left behind (by accident, certainly). He wants to keep his nose clean but needs cash to show his straight laced in-laws that he’s worthy of their daughter. He’s responsible for his family (wife, child), his extended family (cousin, aunt), neighborhood, extended Black community–maintaining the peace while also being responsible for some of the turmoil that wracks it. Is it progress to reach the level of success that necessitates paying bribes to the local detective? Is it right to bail out your cousin if you know that they’ll just end up back in the red?
No easy answers, but a very easy to read book!