Whitehead’s own mind has famously gone thataway through nine other books that don’t much resemble one another, but this time he’s hit upon a setup that will stick. He has said he may keep Ray going into another book, and it won’t take you long to figure out why ... brings Whitehead’s unwavering eloquence to a mix of city history, niche hangouts, racial stratification, high hopes and low individuals. All of these are somehow worked into a rich, wild book that could pass for genre fiction. It’s much more, but the entertainment value alone should ensure it the same kind of popular success that greeted his last two novels. It reads like a book whose author thoroughly enjoyed what he was doing ... The author creates a steady, suspenseful churn of events that almost forces his characters to do what they do. The final choice is theirs, of course ... Quaint details aside, this is no period piece ... Though it’s a slightly slow starter, Harlem Shuffle has dialogue that crackles, a final third that nearly explodes, hangouts that invite even if they’re Chock Full o’ Nuts and characters you won’t forget even if they don’t stick around for more than a few pages.
... dazzling ... the language here is wiseguy crisp, zinging with street vernacular ... Whitehead flexes his literary muscles further, extending the boundaries and expectations of crime writing ... The book is also a social drama interrogating the nature of prejudice and how an environment limits ambition. The nuances of Manhattan’s topography drive much of the action ... Part of the book’s pleasure is that it keeps you guessing. By the end, I felt, as Ray does of Harlem: 'Its effect was unmeasurable until it was gone.'
... a book that luxuriates in the seedy spaces of late night ... this book too is driven by a serious historical purpose, showing us the micro-changes in the landscape of Harlem and the prospects of Black Americans in the North in the 1960s .. Whitehead’s sweet, sweaty, authoritative, densely peopled portrait of a Harlem in near perpetual summer is the most successful part of the book. Had I not known Whitehead was a talented shape-shifter, I — as an outsider to Harlem — would have believed he had only ever written about this setting ... Except for a couple of potted histories, Whitehead’s research in Harlem Shuffle feels richly integrated with the story; he knows the people of Harlem in the 1960s; and the people are just that: real people ... In the past, Whitehead has shown a deep interest in systems but not always in human psychology (a charge that has also been leveled at earlier systems novelists like Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon). This book is a step forward. Ray Carney, the protagonist, is, in some ways, Whitehead’s most fully developed character ... The novel treats the hotel itself as a microcosm of Harlem, and each civilian caught in the heist is tagged with a supple biography. Had Whitehead ended the book after this fierce and funny section, it would stand as one of the few perfect novellas in American literature ... Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on your taste — Whitehead keeps going; and the rest of the book yields mixed results ... this revenge goes perfectly, with few consequences for Carney — and the book loses energy as a result. Instead of forcing Carney’s self-image into crisis, Whitehead gives us less-than-original observations about how everyone’s a crook ... Happily, Whitehead rights the ship by the third episode, which focuses on another crime to which Carney is an unwilling accomplice, with potentially deadly repercussions for the people he loves. And the crime story, which had become inert, suddenly revs to life, reminding us that Whitehead, beneath all the shambling and high jinks, remains an American master.
The book might be called 'Colson Comes to Harlem,' because in bringing his singular gifts to this storied place, the novelist turns to the crime genre ... In his eminently enjoyable new novel, Mr. Whitehead’s various powers have attained something like equilibrium. The humor and flashes of the old word-wizardry are there, as is the philosophical subtext; race, while not foregrounded the way it is in The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, is woven inextricably into the background, like subtle but effective film music; and we are made to care about, and root for, the main character ... In telling Carney’s story, Mr. Whitehead comes off a bit like the onetime class clown who has matured enough to realize that jokes will not carry him through every situation, even as he is sometimes unable to resist making them.
... a casual, beautiful novel, extraordinarily enjoyable ... In the less successful of Whitehead’s early books, there was a stubborn emotional remove in even overtly emotional passages, the language and thought always crystalline, the author’s gifts never in question, but the heartbeat thready. Not in Harlem Shuffle ... Maybe it’s this that writing historical fiction has given Whitehead: the ability to command a fuller and more fine-grain range of human emotions, granted to him in part by the safety of characters firmly embedded in other eras, away from himself. Some writers flourish in that freedom ... feels very much a part of Whitehead’s great and complex project (intentional or not) in this second phase of his career to write about Black history in America with the fullness of attention and empathy that white Americans have taken for granted ... it’s the in-between shades of racism, as much as the ones most glaringly relevant, that Whitehead captures most masterfully through Ray—the thousands of apperceptions of insult both subtle and blatant, the unending accumulation of slights, that comprised life as a Black person in the 50s and 60s ... The book’s three plotlines, each revolving around a crime, are engaging and well constructed, if perhaps a little perfunctory...They could be peak Elmore Leonard, with their episodes of semi-violence and moral ambiguity...But Ray is a character strong and central enough to override these faults in the narrative ... funny, rich, hugely pleasurable.
A heist with a cast of zany characters, tongue-in-cheek dialogue, questionable criminal skills, and of course, a bumbling, incompetent thief or two are undoubtedly part of the charm of Colson Whitehead's Harlem Shuffle. But the novel is also a powerful tale of a man's love for his family and the neighborhood where he lives. And the man at the center of that tale is a devastatingly enjoyable character who has a true gift for words — if not always the smartest actions ... I especially enjoyed Whitehead's prose, so vividly cinematic it brought to mind some of my favorite gritty heist films ... every paragraph is full of authentic voices and perfectly deployed profanity, which adds to the you-are-there feeling, sitting in the backroom of the furniture store or at the bar at the Nightbirds with Carney, Freddie, Miami Joe, Pepper and Tommy Lips. There are some riveting female characters, too ... No matter how much trouble he finds, we can't help but root for Ray Carney every step of the way ... a suspenseful crime thriller that's sure to add to the tally — it's a fabulous novel you must read.
Whitehead has designed the book to fold out...with symmetrical beauty ... Like a dealer in Three-card Monte, the author shows, shuffles, and overlaps these plots, daring you to enter the gambit ... I’ll point you to the closing pages of the novel where Whitehead, with dazzling skill, shows us that his crime fiction was never meant to be a lark ... The continually fluctuating conditions of Black American life; the WTC rising and crumbling at once. The author captures six decades of American experience in Carney’s glance ... linguistic prowess, formal precision, and electric imagination. Those very elements also make Harlem Shuffle exciting and wise.
The murky distinction between legality and illegality sits at the core of Harlem Shuffle … Can theft really be a crime, the novel asks us, in a country built on it? … Frustratingly, Ray...remains a pragmatist, never fully disavowing the charms of the Black bourgeoisie—a choice that is of course his right, just as it is Whitehead’s to write a novel devoid of prescriptions. In fact, his refusal might even be considered radical at a moment when readers are turning to Black writers for answers rather than for art. Whitehead follows in a long tradition of Black writers who employ crime fiction subversively, using the genre against itself to expose the hypocrisies of the justice system … Some readers may find the absence of a real police presence in the novel a missed opportunity for social commentary, but others—I’m among them—can appreciate that Whitehead’s omission allows the people in his book to savor the delight that transgression bring … Few of his crooks get off entirely free (the gangsters and the businessmen they represent eventually come knocking). Still, many are given a brief moment to revel in the high of the heist, which is close enough.
His enthralling, cinematic new work...tweaks a simple heist story to limn enduring conflicts of race and class ... Whitehead's sentences are beautifully bricked together—it's nigh impossible to wedge a blade between them—and his midcentury deadpan is flawless. But there's a touch of Renaissance storytelling, as well ... While a valentine to a time and place, Harlem Shuffle brilliantly tackles the daunting challenges of any American era.
... a work that has a certain joy and a deep melancholy ... This is a very good thriller and so much more than a thriller. As with Colson’s previous work, this deals with race. But he does not deal with it in a simple, dichotomous way ... The subtlety of Carney’s character is key to this novel. External either/or-s plague him. The competing claims of loyalty and propriety, aspiration and anonymity, grift and grit run through the book on every level. It makes the reader wonder the whole time about the extent of sympathy to extend. This is a rare quality, to keep you double-guessing about how we are going to judge the character. It is also a moral proposition, which is rare in contemporary fiction.
If the ghost of Chester Himes hovers over these pages, there’s nothing derivative about Whitehead’s storytelling. As usual, when he moves into a new genre, he keeps the bones but does his own decorating ... There’s nothing zany about Harlem Shuffle, but Whitehead has cast this novel with toughs like Chet the Vet, who flashes gold canines, and Miami Joe, who wears a high-waisted purple suit. Although they’re not harmless figures, they’re definitely comic/
... gloriously entertaining ... In archly comic prose...Colson conjures Kennedy-era New York in all its tatterdemalion glory ... Colson remains one of the most eclectic writers at work in the US today. The influence of caper films such as Rififi and Uncut Gems shows in the dark comedy attendant on the Theresa venture, but Colson is his own sardonic, street-savvy voice ... Colson’s is not an overtly political voice, but Harlem Shuffle is a zingy social drama, that combines flights of high comedy with reflections on the nature of black self-help and black empowerment in America. A more purely enjoyable novel is unlikely to emerge this year.
There is violence and grimness, to be sure, but they are undercut here by the drollness and irony that is emblematic of Whitehead’s earlier works, qualities that he could not readily avail himself of in his two previous books’ representations of enslavement and the institutional abuse of children. There’s an unmistakable wryness to much of the dialogue ... The prose glistens most dazzlingly as Carney peregrinates around the neighborhood ... The conviviality of Harlem, brimming with life and sin of all kinds, produces characters who are almost too human—that is, complex and contradictory in the most mundane but familiar ways ... If crime novels of the early- and mid-twentieth century often provided a glimpse inside the psychology of the criminal, Harlem Shuffle evinces how such a psychology could come into vogue ... By making the novel’s protagonist a self-described entrepreneur who unyieldingly rails against the lawless behavior he so regularly partakes in, Whitehead reveals how structural racism, interpersonal anti-Blackness, and the fantasy of the American dream co-conspire under capitalism, undermining Black community by atomizing success into an individual aspiration and achievement rather than a collective possibility.
... a wildly entertaining romp. But as you might expect with this two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArthur genius, Whitehead also delivers a devastating, historically grounded indictment of the separate and unequal lives of Blacks and whites in mid-20th century New York ... the plot is twisty, with a large, at times bewildering cast of characters and a few storylines that border on the ridiculous. What ties it all is the utterly believable, complicated character of Carney ... Part of the suspense—and what sets this novel apart from so many others in the hard-boiled crime genre—comes from wondering whether Ray’s better angels will prevail ... countless beautifully written, erudite passages ... Whitehead takes us inside Ray’s head as he considers the relationship between fathers and sons, and the question of whether genetics is destiny.
In the hands of Whitehead, Harlem is a stunning motif representing a cultural mecca of intellect, art, and business ... Whitehead skillfully weaves a complex tapestry of Harlem’s racial issues ... Harlem Shuffle exudes authorial power and profound insight into the American experiment. In this multi-layered crime narrative, Whitehead presents complex characters who embody the complexity of their social milieu. Like America, Harlem’s stratified beauty is symbolic of the constant tension between those who are corrupt and those who are trying to lead a respectable existence. Ultimately, the power of Whitehead’s mixed-genre narrative is his exploration and insight into the duplicitous mindset of the American consciousness.
Whitehead has fun and shows off his literary dexterity with this rollicking crime novel set in 1960s Harlem ... As a writer, Whitehead is in full command, seamlessly populating his story with lovingly recounted period details. The stakes here aren’t as high, or the subject matter as heavy, as in his two recent masterworks, but Whitehead’s mystery explores the intersections of Black class mobility, civil unrest, and New York City in an entertaining way ... Another can’t-miss from the versatile Whitehead.
Whitehead adds another genre to an ever-diversifying portfolio with his first crime novel, and it’s a corker ... Whitehead delivers a portrait of Harlem in the early ’60s, culminating with the Harlem Riot of 1964, that is brushed with lovingly etched detail and features a wonderful panoply of characters who spring to full-bodied life, blending joy, humor, and tragedy. A triumph on every level.
Throughout, readers will be captivated by a Dickensian array of colorful, idiosyncratic characters, from itchy-fingered gangsters to working-class women with a low threshold for male folly. What’s even more impressive is Whitehead’s densely layered, intricately woven rendering of New York City in the Kennedy era, a time filled with both the bright promise of greater economic opportunity and looming despair due to the growing heroin plague ... As one of Whitehead’s characters might say of their creator, When you’re hot, you’re hot.
... a sizzling heist novel ... It’s a superlative story, but the most impressive achievement is Whitehead’s loving depiction of a Harlem 60 years gone—'that rustling, keening thing of people and concrete'—which lands as detailed and vivid as Joyce’s Dublin. Don’t be surprised if this one wins Whitehead another major award.