Colson Whitehead has a knack for mixing genres from the early 1960s

Recommended by Alain Raimbault, member of the 20 Minutes Books reading group Harlem Shuffle By Colson Whitehead, published by Editions Albin Michel on January 5, 2023.

His favorite quote:

All Carney had to do was walk five minutes in any direction, and one generation’s immaculate townhouses became the next generation’s shooting houses, hotels told the same story of abandonment, and several nights of rioting saw businesses looted and destroyed. What caused the fire this week? A white police officer shot a black youth three times in the body. American know-how in all its glory: we create miracles, we create injustice, we never stop. ยป

Why this book?

  • Because this novel takes us to America in the early 1960s. during the tumultuous times of civil rights movements, the Vietnam War, and space exploration. New York City, more specifically Harlem, is detailed with the names of streets, shops, brands, bars, and movie or jazz celebrities. This effect of reality takes the reader to an old, violent, living world, where injustice reigns and survives, everyone goes by his own trick.
  • Because the plot of the novel is detective. The reader follows the crazy race of Ray Carney, an honest furniture salesman by day and a fencer by night. Her cousin Freddie never ceases to engage her in nefarious activities, which Carney tries to get out of throughout the novel, preferably unscathed, which is not clear. Time passes, Freddie miraculously survives, but continues to sink. Will he definitely take Carney to hell? Everything leads us to believe.
  • Because the author emphasizes two opposite worlds, geographically, but also socially, judicially and historically separated in the city. That of whites who will always win because of the institutional corruption they benefit from, and blacks like Carney who are trying to get there at any cost. Incidentally, the story of the 1964 riots that followed the killing of a young black man by a white police officer is chilling and a sad reminder that such incidents continue into the 21st century.
  • Because this novel takes us back to Chester Himes’ Harlem, a poor, violent, but a little more desperate neighborhood, from the pen of Colson Whitehead, whose main character is an ambitious entrepreneur who slowly emerges from insecurity despite everyday hardships. The reader can only think of authors like Donald Westlake, Ed McBain or Jerome Charyn, who could describe this New York so well in the post-war years.

Basics in 2 minutes

The plot. Ray Carney, a furniture dealer, tries to make as much profit as possible by trading and reselling more or less legitimate objects. In addition, his cousin Freddy constantly involves him in dark affairs. Ray tries to juggle business and underworld connections.

Characters. Ray Carney, furniture dealer; wife Elizabeth; his cousin Freddie; Pepper, the bodyguard; criminals Miami Joe and Chink Montague; Munson, the crooked cop; The VanWyck family.

places. Harlem, New York.

Time. Late 1950s and early 1960s.

Author. Colson Whitehead is an American writer born in New York in 1969. He twice received the prestigious Pulitzer Prize, like Faulkner or Updike. It has been translated into more than sixty languages.

This book has been read Mesmerized by the realism of the depictions, I thought I was really in Harlem and kept wondering how Carney would get out of the mess his cousin had just gotten him back into. The tension is endless, I devoured this book.

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