Harlem Shuffle was billed as a heist book, a caper. And it certainly has heists, and even a caper or two, but reducing the whole book to that label ignores that Harlem Shuffle is something a bit more complex.
Ray Carney is a furniture salesman in Harlem in the late 1950s. He is moderately successful, still worried about making rent. He dreams of a bigger apartment for his growing family. He is also, we soon learn, not entirely on the up-and-up. In a description reminiscent of Gaiman/Pratchett (Crowley was an angel who did not fall, so much as saunter vaguely downward), “Ray Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked…”
The book is broken into three parts, set several years apart. Each part sees Ray reckoning with the two sides of this personality (the straight and the crooked), and with a different organizing event or observation. We also see Harlem changing through Ray’s eyes, and through the events of the book.
This is one of those books where I absolutely appreciate the artistry involved – there is no question that Whitehead, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner is good at what he does. But I never sank into this book like I have with some of his others. I wonder if part of that is because this isn’t a particularly plot-driven book, even though there’s a lot of plot that happens. (Does that make sense? I feel like I’m not making sense.) And perhaps because most of the action seems to happen to characters around Carney, rather than Carney himself. The changes that Carney goes through are quieter and more subtle.
Maybe, as some reviews suggest, this is a love letter to Harlem, and I just don’t know Harlem that well at all.