Ray Carney is a man perpetually caught in the middle. As a Black business owner in Harlem he is a fixture in his community, but he has a hard time getting white-owned companies to do business with him. As a dark-skinned Black man he faces colorism from the affluent section of Harlem, including his own in-laws. And as the son of a career criminal, he finds himself struggling to escape from his father’s past while inexorably drawn back into it by his father’s old associates and his cousin Freddie.
Harlem Shuffle takes shape as three largely distinct sections, each covering a period of Ray’s life. The first, in 1959, covers the early days of Ray’s business and his unwilling involvement in a heist perpetrated by a crew including his cousin Freddie. The second, set in 1961, sees Ray more intentionally indulging his dark side by seeking revenge on a Harlem banker who takes advantage of him. The book’s final section finds Ray prospering until Cousin Freddie once again drops trouble at his door and Ray must fight back to keep his family safe.
The set-up is intriguing and the writing, on the sentence level at least, is really impressive. (Whitehead is not a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for nothing.) So why did Harlem Shuffle leave me so cold? I think the answer is Ray Carney. Whitehead doesn’t imbue him with much in the way of personality. He cares about his store and his family, but that’s about all we learn about Ray.
Ultimately, Ray just isn’t compelling enough to carry the novel. Whitehead has set the novel in a compelling place during a turbulent and fascinating time, but the reader is stuck with a taciturn, charmless protagonist.