Few copies of Harlem Shuffle checked out this month, so I didn’t expect a large turnout for our meeting. Out of five readers, two had been too disinterested to finish, one finished despite her dislike, one of us found it entertaining, and I was awed by it. Because of how much trouble I encountered reading initially, I started the discussion to acknowledge both the difficulty and my overwhelming admiration of Colson Whitehead’s skill.
When I first started reading Harlem Shuffle, I found myself re-reading passages multiple times. I couldn’t quite understand why. The sentences were neither convoluted nor obscure, just unusual, and at the end of the day, I was likely to fall asleep or get distracted! I stuck it out, skimming much of the second half only because I waited too close to our meeting–otherwise, I would have savored the prose, the descriptive analogies, the historical references, the ideology. I did not identify with the world these characters live in, I have never been to New York, but unlike our previous selection, Fates and Furies, I found the story believable and, after the first section, compelling.
Our next responder didn’t finish the book, but she appreciated the glimpse of a different culture and its morals. She looked up some of the online reviews and found that many of the negative comments came from readers who recommended Colson Whitehead’s two Pulitzer Prize winning novels, The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys. Another of us disagreed with the many descriptions of the novel as “hilarious.” She found it realistic and sad. Our one male reader thought it was easy to read because you didn’t know what was coming next. So, I asked the classic question: “But did you find it entertaining?” He did! He was particularly interested in why Carney, believing his wife would leave him if she knew about his criminal activities, would have continued to take such risks.
How different is our perspective of the world when we are comfortable calling the police for help versus paying them bribes? How many of us can imagine what it would be like to need to leave an extra hour before an interview, just in case we were stopped by police? One member shared how she had once been terrified by a gunshot and called the police–who never arrived. When she went to the police station to inquire why, they explained that the address was marked do not respond because of previous repeated domestic abuse calls. I was encouraged to visit New York by one member and warned that New York City was crowded and dirty by another. The paradox reminds me of the author’s description of “the wall of Riverside Drive, that jagged line of majestic red brick and white limestone. The perimeter of a fort, to protect the good citizens of Harlem. Wrong again—a cage to keep the mad crowd who called those streets home from escaping to the rest of the world.”
This led to a discussion of both plot and reality. Did everything work out in the end? Yes, sort of. Carney is still in business, still married, considering a move to a new street, and finally landed that new furniture line he wanted. Was Carney’s wife really ignorant of his crooked bent? Could any of them survive without being a little crooked? The book was broken into three sections: the heist, revenge, carrying on. And what about Pepper, the enforcer, asking for a recliner and lamp as payment for his participation? What business other than furniture could have allowed such realistic success, survival, and symbolism? Clothing? One of us thought the book sounded so interesting she almost wished she could finish it!
The historical details were amazing–cultural references to movies, places, and streets that could provide endless discussion, as well as insight into the 1943 and 1964 riots[i], the 1964 New York World’s Fair[ii], and “the forgotten medieval habit of ‘two sleeps[iii].’” I was particularly impressed by the author’s language and read a few passages aloud.[iv] Once he described the descent into drugs as if it were living on a submarine. I finished the book, reading for the resolution of plot, stopping to wonder over passages, but still missing much, I am sure. We have read such a variety of books these last months. I appreciate the opportunity to share them with you!
[i] Carney describes his father stealing pants in the 1943 riots as he experiences the 1964 race riots. There are many sources online, and the references are so eerily familiar to today. Kids.britannica.com: “When the rioting died down and peace had been restored, 1 person was dead, more than 100 had been injured and more than 450 had been arrested.” Web accessed 6/12/2022: https://kids.britannica.com/students/article/Harlem-race-riot-of-1964/633302
[ii] “Twenty Awesome Things People Saw at the 1964 World’s Fair.” https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/56322/20-awesome-things-people-saw-1964-worlds-fair
[iii] “The Forgotten Medieval Habit of ‘Two Sleeps.’” https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20220107-the-lost-medieval-habit-of-biphasic-sleep
[iv] Whitehead, C. (2021). Harlem Shuffle. Doubleday Books. Here are just a few shorter ones.:
“Everyone had secret corners and alleys that no one else saw—what mattered were your major streets and boulevards, the stuff that showed up on other people’s maps of you.” Page 31.
“It had been a crowbar-shaped disappointment.” Page 76.
“Carney’s companion had his face zipped up in contentment.” Page 85.
“Each time he got out he returned to the streets with renewed dedication, chasing criminal renown the way musicians pursued Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.” Page 129.
“The city took everything into its clutches and sent it every which way. Maybe you had a say in what direction, and maybe you didn’t.” Page 131.
“The staff decided when you were a regular, not you.” Page 132.
“Like an illustration in a National Geographic story about the global weather, showing the invisible jet streams and deep-fathom currents that determine the personality of the world.” Page 154.
“Over the decades the street side of the apartment had settled in a slant, but her room was level.” Page 159.
“The little man was the white system hidden behind a black mask. Humiliation was his currency, but tonight Miss Laura had picked his pocket.” Page 197.
“One generation’s immaculate townhouses were the next’s shooting galleries, slum blocks testified in a chorus of neglect, and businesses sat ravaged and demolished after nights of violent protest.” Page 212.
“One thing I’ve learned in my job is that life is cheap, and when things start getting expensive, it gets cheaper still.” Page 244.
“Gnaw on disappointment long enough and it will lose all flavor.” Page 269.
“It was Wednesday night, family supper, both sides of him at the table, the straight and the crooked, breaking bread.” Page 283