In Harlem Shuffle, Colston Whitehead’s protagonist, Ray Carney, takes readers through often intersecting communities in Harlem, in the late 50s-early 60s: into bars, laundromats, bakeries, and social clubs, through front doors and back doors, “doorways [that] were entrances into different cities—no, different entrances into one vast, secret city.” Carney owns a neighborhood furniture store, strives to move his family to a tonier apartment, and lives mostly on the straight and narrow, save a side gig as a fence. However, Carney’s world is upended when his cousin makes him an unwitting accessory in a jewel heist and lands him smack in the middle of trouble, entwined in a web of thieves, crooked cops, and mobsters. Increasingly, Carney sees fewer distinctions between the “straight” and “criminal” worlds.
Whitehead subverts the crime novel genre, blurring notions of “legal” and “illegal,” “just” and “unjust.” We root for Carney as he tries to save himself and his cousin and realize his ambitions. Along the way, Whitehead draws a map through Carney’s beloved Harlem—its history, characters, contradictions, triumphs, and enduring spirit.
Centers for Educational Equity and Excellence, CE3
This book is part of the 2022 Berkeley Summer Reading List. Stay tuned for more weekly posts!