In one word: Meandering
This book was the January/February selection for my work Book Club, of which I am now the unofficial president. Having been at my company for only three months I am stoked about this turn of events and was eager to discuss it with coworkers. This was a GREAT book club book, lots to discuss. I was familiar with Colson Whitehead, having read one of his Pulitzer winners, The Nickel Boys (which tore my heart out) so I was excited to dive into his words again. Whitehead took things in a different direction this go-round in regards to tone and pacing.
For this book, Whitehead pulled inspiration from heist films of the 60s and is telling his own heist story, using more humor in his poetic prose. He wove that material into and around the race riots of 1964, which was a fixed point in history he wanted to cover, so this book works toward that historical moment in Harlem. What struck me the most regarding the race riots of 1964 was a) how little I knew about that and b) how so much has stayed the same. Reading about the killings of young unarmed black boys and the civil unrest it created in the black community are headlines pulled from today’s news. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
I did a little book club prep research and found it super fascinating is how this story intersects with Whitehead’s own life, specifically his parents.
And so I would do all this research and go to the library and find the Hotel Theresa, this place, that nightclub. And then I would tell my mother. And she’d say, oh, yeah, I went to that Chock Full o’Nuts in the Hotel Theresa every day because I worked around the corner. You know, two months later, I was like, oh, Blumstein’s blah, blah, blah. And she said, oh, yeah, your dad worked at Blumstein’s, like Carney does, you know, for two summers. And so I should have just been asking her the whole time. It didn’t occur to me till I was halfway through the book that I could use her as a resource.
But back to the book! Whitehead is one of the most gifted modern writers around, but this book took some time to get into. For the first sixty pages or so I struggled to find the rhythm of the writing. In the first few chapters, you are introduced to our main character Carney, a family man and furniture store owner who has tried to rise beyond his crooked upbringing. The yang to his yin is his cousin Freddie who still runs with a crew of thieves. At the start of the novel, the major heist has happened but we backtrack to get the inside scoop of the heist from Freddie. That narrative choice gave me a bit of reader whiplash, but once we get back to the present, I enjoyed watching Carney live between two worlds. Is he as criminal as his father? No. But is he fencing merchandise out the back of his furniture store? Yes. The book weaves and winds as we wait to see what fate will befall them both. If you like family sagas and crime fiction, this book is a circular Venn diagram with you in the middle.
If someone doesn’t turn this into a movie or short series I will be positively shocked. It is a rich story with amazing characters and though anchored to a specific time and place in American history, is equally relevant to the present.