Colson Whitehead: Harlem Shuffle (Anchor Books/ Penguin Random House 2021)

An envelope is an envelope. Disrespect the order and the whole system breaks down” – Colson Whitehead, epigraph to “Dorvay”, Part Two of Harlem Shuffle       

With Harlem Shuffle Colson Whitehead (b. 1969) follows in the footsteps of other African American crime writers like Harlem Renaissance writer Rudolph Fisher (The Conjure-Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem, 1932) and Chester Himes (Cotton Comes to Harlem, 1965, and eight other titles) setting their suspenseful fictions in New York’s – and America’s – most famous Black neighborhood, Harlem, Harlem itself and its history one of the focuses of Whitehead’s novel.

The novel is divided into three parts. The Truck is set in 1959 and centers on a plan to rob the historic Hotel Theresa, once known as the ‘Waldorf of Harlem’. Dorvay tells about Ray Carney, our main protagonist, and his scheme of revenge for a personal sleight from one of Harlem’s elite. And finally, Cool It Baby is set at the time of the 1964 Harlem riot erupting in the wake of the shooting and killing of 15-year-old Black teenager James Powell by an off-duty white NYPD officer.

Ray Carney. Carney is the up-and-coming owner of Carney’s Furniture on 125th Street, Harlem’s main thoroughfare, selling new and used furniture. Unknown to his wife Elizabeth, he also traffics in stolen goods, like jewelry or electronic appliances. But Carney considers himself “only slightly bent when it came to being crooked,” seeing himself as merely a middleman, facilitating the natural flow of goods in and out of people’s lives, no questions asked, no one hurt by his transactions.

Ray Carney has two ambitions. His first goal is to be successful enough economically to move his family from their small flat within earshot of the elevated train to Riverside Drive, a neighborhood  more acceptable to his in-laws living on the famous Strivers’ Row, home of the Harlem elite.

His second goal is to cut his ties to the world of crime and become a fully legitimate businessman.

The Dumas Club. Named after Alexandre Dumas, the famous French author of The Count of Monte Christo and the grandson of a French nobleman and a Black Haitian slave, The Dumas Club is a fraternity of Harlem’s moneyed elite, and to get ahead Carney wants to become a member.

The banker Wilfred Duke explains how it can be done: “I’m glad you’re here, Raymond. We’re trying to broaden our ranks around here – so it’s not the same type. We can only accept a few men each year, that’s what’s hard about it.” Duke continues: “Being that selective, sometimes a man, if he wants to head to the front of the line, he’ll add a sweetener. So he doesn’t get overlooked.”

Ray: “How sweet?” Duke: “That depends on the man and how front of the line. Last year we had a fellow – I won’t say his name, I’m discreet, you have to be in banking – arrived at the number five.”

It is a shakedown, but Carney decides to pay. He gets double-crossed. And the system breaks down.

Big Mike Carney’s legacy. Carney will get his revenge, and he will move his family, wife and two small children, to an apartment on Riverside Drive with or without the help of the Dumas Club.

Becoming legit proves much harder. Where do you turn, for instance, when banks refuse to give you a start-up loan because you are a Black man who wants to open up your own store in Harlem, a Black neighborhood around 1960 troubled by crime and drugs? And how do you get out from under the shadow of your father’s reputation as a small time gangster and a believer in “the simple eloquence of violence?” “You are Mike Carney’s son, you’ll figure it out.” Like father, like son?

In fact, Carney’s seed money for his legal store comes from Big Mike’s illegal activities. One day driving his old pickup truck, an inheritance from his late father, he runs over a nail. In the back he finds 30,000 $ in the spare tire – unaccounted for. Three months later he opens Carney’s Furniture.

One chapter introduces Pepper, Mike Carney’s old partner in crime: “The fifth time Pepper beat a man unconscious the judge said it was either jail or sign up for the war effort.” It describes Pepper’s war-time experiences in Burma, concluding: “The war didn’t change Pepper, it completed him.” Pepper will end up hired by Ray Carney, “Big Mike’s son,” to protect his property and his family.

Freddie: “I didn’t mean to get you in trouble.” Freddie is Carney’s ne’er-do-well cousin. After his mother’s death when he was nine and his father’s disappearance, young Ray Carney lived for a few years with his aunt Millie, a nurse at Harlem Hospital, and his reckless cousin.

It is Freddie who gets a protesting and incredulous Carney implicated in the Hotel Theresa heist as a possible fence (“You told them my name?”) putting both Carney and his family in harm’s way. And  mobsters – looking for missing loot from the robbery, the heisters double-crossing each other – and crooked police soon appear at Carney’s doorstep, everybody with a hand out for the envelope.

Although set in Harlem in 1964, Part Three is more about Freddie than about the rioting, looting (“They stole everything and then grabbed a broom and stole the dust, too”), and police brutality.

To Carney Freddie is more like a brother whom he loves than a cousin. And when Freddie asks Carney to sit “for a few days” on goods stolen by Freddie and his new drug-addict friend from  a former New York mayor and major real estate developer, pleading: “I am your cousin … I don’t have anybody else,” Carney cannot turn him away. Ignoring Pepper’s warning: “Cut him loose. He’s a looser. Your father would say: “Fuck him. Even if he is family. Even if it was you.”

Which is exactly why Carney can’t do it. And soon the big man’s goons with guns arrive …

Dorvay. Occasionally Colson Whitehead will let Harlem Shuffle digress for a page or two  to give us, say, the story of Pepper’s World War II experiences in Burma, mentioned above, or the history of Seneca Village (see below: Black Manhattan). And there is the concept of Dorvay.

Dorvay is Carney’s mishearing of the Old French composite word dorveille. Dor- stands for dormir, to sleep, -veiller for to be awake, the composite word thus referring to a wakeful interval between being asleep and being awake, being alert, a dreamlike state of mind between periods of sleep.

Carney first heard the word from his old professor Simonov from an unspecified eastern European country, when he was taking a class in  financial accounting, telling his students about a time before the invention of the lightbulb when it was common to sleep in two shifts, interrupted by ‘dorvay’.  

When Carney slips into dorvay, he wakes up an hour or two around midnight to study, to fix his accounts, or to plan his revenge on Wilfred Duke. Not familiar with the literary use of the term, to Carney “dorvay was crooked heaven, when the straight world slept and the bent got to work.”

Could dorvay be seen as a metaphor for his own life, keeping the two sides of him separate, the straight and the bent? Or maybe there was no separation, it was all him and always had been?

Black Manhattan. In 1960 the population of Central Harlem was 96% African American. It was not always like that. In 1910 Harlem was just 10% Black. The Great Migration between 1910 and 1970, however, coinciding with and following WWI and WWII, changed the demographic map of America. Some six million African Americans migrated from the rural South to the big cities in the urban North and (Mid)West, and by the time of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s Harlem had become “Negro Metropolis,” attracting people from the Caribbean and even Africa itself. 

Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle takes us back even further. Seneca Village, founded in 1825, was a thriving community “mostly colored with a sprinkling of Irish” of some 225 souls by the mid- 1850s when New York City seized the land and razed the village to make room for Central Park.

The title of Whitehead’s novel will make some readers think of the landmark Black-only Broadway musical revue Shuffle Along from 1921, with music by Eubie Blake and lyrics by Nobble Sissle, making a star of a very young Florence Mills (and introducing Josephine Baker to the world).

And in passing Whitehead will make reference to Harlem institutions like the Savoy Ballroom, the Apollo Theater and Amsterdam News, and celebrities like Adam Clayton Powell Jr., minister and charismatic and flamboyant Harlem congressman and power broker for nearly three decades, in what reviewers have called Colson Whitehead’s love song for Harlem and Black Manhattan.

Crook Manifesto. A two time Pulitzer Prize winner, for The Underground Railroad (1916), filmed in 2021 by Oscar winner Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, 2016) and The Nickel Boys (2019), to be filmed by another African American filmmaker, RaMell Ross, a major new talent, Whitehead had planned for Harlem Shuffle to follow The Underground Railroad. But exasperated by the endless cycle of police shooting of Black teenagers, Whitehead put the manuscript aside to write The Nickel Boys.

The fun of writing Harlem Shuffle would have to wait. The crime novel was finished during the month he spent being quarantined during the  COVID-19 pandemic in New York City.

Colson Whitehead has a reputation of not repeating himself. Until now. Harlem Shuffle is the first book of a planned trilogy. The second book, Crook Manifesto, is to be released next year, 2023.

UFI // 26 December 2022  

Note: Colson Whitehead is the author of two books of non-fiction: The Colossus of New York and The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death, and eight novels: The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, Apex Hides the Hurt, Sag Harbor, Zone One, The Underground Railroad, The Nickel Boys, and now Harlem Shuffle.