You could argue that in the end, it all works out for Ray Carney.
He’s got his wife, his family, his furniture store. Carney might not be living in a Van Wyck high rise, but he’s made solid progress toward that American Dream — to do and live better than the generation before.
But if you pick up Harlem Shuffle, you’ll discover there’s more to Colson Whitehead’s protagonist than a straightforward desire to make a solid living. And that you can’t always shake your roots.
There’s a lot to unpack in Whitehead’s latest, a fictional take on late 1950s to early 1960s Harlem — the story of Ray Carney, a local furniture salesman and son of a con man, and someone that is struggling, whether he’ll admit to it or not, that as much as he wants to play it straight, he can’t hide from the fact he started his business thanks to shady cash, and keeps it afloat with a fencing operation on the side. Like father, like son.
For me, one of the most compelling threads throughout the three years and scenarios in which we are treated to a glimpse of Carney’s life is that of his relationship with his cousin Freddie — a childhood friend and companion, and in fact practically a brother, until the nefarious side of Harlem sucks him in and Carney is faced with a neverending string of situations from which he needs to bail him out.
What compels Carney to continue to save Freddie from himself? Why, when Freddie’s actions put Ray’s family in danger, is he still insistent on trying to rescue him? Are there people in your life you’ll never abandon? Is it a sense of familial responsibility? Self-preservation?
And then there’s street justice. Ray is compelled to right every wrong against him. And while it might not be the best move to make, it sure makes for entertaining reading. (We all need a friend like Pepper.) If you are thinking of crossing someone, don’t make it a Ray Carney. Because he doesn’t play.
Colson Whitehead is one of this generation’s most ambitious and talented storytellers. What feels like simple is so complex. This tale, on the heels of The Nickel Boys, is decidedly different, yet the emotion between the characters is just as deep. Don’t pass this up.