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Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead: An Ocean’s Eleven meets Ozark heist caper

A playful heist tale by two-time Pulitzer winner Colson Whitehead oozes the vibe of early 1960s Harlem.

Double Pulitzer winner Colson Whitehead’s name has a cultural presence few of his peers can match.

So it’s something of a surprise that the author of The Underground Railroad and revered social historian’s new novel Harlem Shuffle treads such ostensibly light ground, presenting as an Ocean’s Eleven meets Ozark heist caper, written with an air of mischief and humour and peppered with sidelong cheeky winks to its omniscient reader.

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead.
Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead.

Set in early Sixties Harlem, the novel tells the story of furniture shop owner Ray Carney, whose financial struggles, lower-class background and deep black skin disappoint his socially aspirational in-laws (“Alma used the word settled the way the less genteel use motherfucker”).

Best then that they don’t know about the violent criminal father whose lifestyle and reputation he has worked hard to rise above, cultivating his own business and finely cut accent (“hard stop on the t”).

When his hapless cousin Freddie embroils him in an audacious heist the novel adopts a jaunty Cab Calloway-style tone, implying crazy scrapes among a cast with names like Miami Joe, Cheap Brucie and Tommy Lips.

It’s not rippling with Paul Beatty or Joseph Heller belly laughs, but Harlem Shuffle is notably more playful than its heavyweight predecessors.

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Unsurprisingly for a political and socially alert writer of Whitehead’s calibre, the mood darkens as the novel rolls through the years towards the ruinous Harlem riot of 1964, triggered by the shooting of an unarmed black boy by a white cop.

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The heart begins to sink as Carney’s increasingly high-risk choices see him slide on to ominously thin ice, putting him and his family in jeopardy.

Along the way Whitehead documents the neighbourhood changes and losses with a nostalgic melancholy, walking the reader along the razed blocks, burnt-out shop fronts and faded street signs. Carney reminisces about happier old times but notes “you get older and old jokes grow less funny”.

We are kept guessing about Carney’s fate until the last page. But the real draw of this novel is its loving evocation of the sounds, smells and flavours of ‘60s Harlem.

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Whitehead’s almost pathological need to thoroughly describe every passing jaywalker or shop window is akin to that of unlikely bedfellow Thomas Hardy. And so we share Carney’s summers of oppressive heat and spraying fire hydrants, where sidewalks reverberate to jazz filtering through nightclub doorways and tinny rock’n’roll emanating from transistor radios.

We negotiate the ‘sidewalk choreography’ of men in pinstripe suits side-stepping soul-saving street preachers. And when it’s all over and we look up from the page again, the real world looks a little more grey than it did before.

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