Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead is a historical fiction of hustling in the late 50’s early 60’s Harlem, New York. The scenery and atmosphere of the times feels so genuine and accurate. The novel is broken down into 3 interconnected novellas that are years apart, the stories keep the same characters and we see those characters change and evolve over time. Even though Harlem Shuffle takes place 70 years ago there are stark similarities to present day, protest over police / race relations, riots, and corruption of politicians. The language feels authentic and real, and was one of the best parts, I was bummed there weren’t more scenes of it. This is my first Colson Whitehead novel, the Underground Railroad and Nickel Boys have been on my radar and TBR for quite sometime. I have been told that Harlem Shuffle is not his best. I had a love hate with this novel, I loved the scenery, the way landscape was described, I loved the dialogue, how easily it flowed, but I did not care enough about these characters, I felt a lot of the conflict was resolved to easy and not very smart. I liked the first story the best and did not know that the novel was broken up by novellas, I felt there was more to the first story. I wanted more from this novel. Harlem Shuffle was published on 9 – 14 – 21.
Plot Summary: Ray Carney is a legitimate business man in Harlem in the late 1950’s. He learn’s fast and hard lesson’s from the streets. His Father was a tough no nonsense hustler that Ray has tried to distance and remove from his life. But being a business man in Harlem means you have to get your hands dirty, robbing, pay offs to cops and criminals, getting rid of bodies, and murder. He will use the skills that he never wanted to live in success.
What I Liked: I liked that Ray lives in the grey area but always thought he was good, but now his circumstances change and he realizes I’m not so good, but this is now just part of business. I liked how we get backgrounds to almost all characters no matter how small, at first this was a little overwhelming, because I’m not used to it, then I saw what Whitehead was doing, connecting all these characters some from circumstance, others had family connections, and some where connected to the birth of Harlem. I really liked the first story, and wished it continued.
What I Disliked: I felt like the conflict was over to fast, characters were still talking and then someone shoots them before we get any explanation, there was no ratcheting of tension. I t made me not care about the character because I felt no real danger for him, and what is frustrating is there was so much potential for the character and the stories. I liked one of the novellas way more than the other 2. The last one had potential when it was getting interesting it was over quick.
Recommendations: I really wanted to like this book but we just didn’t gel. There’s was really great dialogue but too few of it. I have heard great things about both The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys which I plan to read eventually, but this book I can not recommend, and would try one of those instead. I rated Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead 3 out of 5 stars.