Harlem Shuffle, or Harlem Lumber, or Harlem Work-Study Program

This is probably our last book review of 2021, before our annual “Best Of The Year” discussion — and it’s Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle. Prolific and Pulitzer-Prize Winning, Whitehead in the author of such contemporary classics as The Underground Railroad (Jennifer loved it) and The Nickel Boys (maybe Lara was more into it). This time, it’s a heist story, centering on Ray Carney, a Harlem furniture-store owner who is only “slightly bent” on the spectrum of being crooked, in 1960s New York City.

Jennifer: I guess I’m constantly struck by Whitehead’s regular literary output. I’ve read a lot of his stuff, maybe most of it (not all of it). I think The Underground Railroad was BRILLIANT. During my own zombie-obsession, I taught Zone One—and it’s a fab zombie novel. My favorite zombie novel. He doesn’t stick to a theme or topic; I both admire this and wonder about it.

In September of this year, Whitehead said the following: “Whether I’m writing about zombies amok or a heist, this is stuff I like. I have to give myself permission, though. Can I write a crime novel? I’m not an expert. Can I write a zombie novel? I’ve read very few zombie novels, although I do like zombie movies. Or it might be about slavery or, say, coming-of-age in 1980s Sag Harbor. I try to come at it from my own point-of-view and to make a contribution. I enjoy it. Hopefully if you do that right, other people will come along and enjoy it too.”

How do you feel about all of this? Does it affect his writing?

Lara: There is not a doubt that Colson Whitehead is a talent. He’s a real literary darling amongst the best circles. And all that to say, he’s not my favorite.

I find his books hard to read, probably because he’s such a good writer. Sentences are dense and require a lot of concentration to digest, for me anyway. I do love that he’s willing to tackle so many different genres, and I was excited for Harlem Shuffle, his foray into the heist story… but it was just meh for me. And hard to read.

What did you think of it?

Jennifer: Um, yeah, I hate saying that I didn’t love it. I want to love everything he does. But I didn’t love The Nickel Boys (it seemed somehow “removed” and lacking intimacy), and I’d agree with you on this book. I found the sentences beautiful, but overwrought. It was work to read; I’m not at all opposed to working for my Art—but it was one sentence after the other of uber-concentration.

I guess, also, I kept waiting for a climactic moment — and I didn’t especially find one. Did you?

Lara: Nope. I sure didn’t.

Jennifer: Were you vested in these characters?

Lara: I was not. There wasn’t one I could connect with and so the effort of super-focused reading and concentration with no reward was really difficult for me. I did love how he spoke about and wrote about New York.

Jennifer:  I feel that way too. And here’s my Colson Confession: I want to be friends with him. I bet I’ve tweeted to him or something. (I know I did; he tweeted back.) I did give him a bunch of books to sign at a conference, and he signed them all. I also gave him one of my books. (Um, nothing happened.)

But I wasn’t vested in these people. Was I torn up about Carney’s existence as a man between the life of crime, and family life? Not really. Was I swept up in Freddie’s fate? No, I wasn’t.

Was I wowed by the language? Yes. Till I wasn’t.

Is he one of the best writers who captures New York City? Yes, I think so.  

Here’s a sampling:

“Riverside, where restless Manhattan found itself finally spent, its greedy hands unable to reach past the park and the holy Hudson. One day he’d live on Riverside Drive, on this quiet, inclined stretch. . .”

And this:

“Like most Harlemites, Carney grew up with broken glass in the playground, the pageant of sidewalk cruelty whenever he stepped outside, and the snap of gunfire.”

These are colorful characters with names like Pepper, Linus, Miami Joe, and Chink Montague.

So, this is a hard book to critique. Line-by-line, Whitehead writes great prose. Picture, however, one blow-your-mind sentence after another. What happens? You can never ease back into your chair. You’re concentrating hard. Your sweating over sentence structure. You can do ten pages, maybe, but you’ll need a break.

I want to go back to the diversity of his themes. Is he saying something important? Was this a heist novel that added anything to the heist novel tradition? Was it just a fun read?

I guess I felt that it didn’t add to the tradition. He captured it well enough. It seemed to me (cruelly?) to not offer the profundity that something like The Underground Railroad offered. Do I demand profundity? A little. It doesn’t necessarily need to be highfalutin (I just read the newest David Sedaris book — and, yeah, it was profound).

Your thoughts?

Lara: I agree with almost everything you said, except I want to be BFFs with Ann Patchett and Yaa Gyasi.

Reading this book did feel like I needed to be upright in a rigid, high-backed, leather chair. There was no lazy reading on the couch with this one. At all.

Where I don’t agree with you, is that I don’t need everything I read to be profound and Art with a CAPITAL A. That said, if you are going to make the experience all high-back leather chair, it better move the earth.

Jennifer:  I want that, I’m afraid.

What are you reading lately? I did, as mentioned just finish David Sedaris’s second volume of diaries, A Carnival of Snackeries. Loved it! I’m reading some Stephen King (talk about prolific!), Voddie Baucham (on CRT—yikes!), and a rock n’ roll book called Killing Bono by Neil McCormick (my husband seems to think we saw the film based on this — but I have no memory of it whatsoever).

Lara: I haven’t read as much as you might have thought. I listened to a fun take on Pride and Prejudice called Pride and Premeditation: Jane Austen Murder Mystery #1 by Tizra Price. I pretty much devoured Claire Lombardo’s The Most Fun We Ever Had. It’s dysfunctional family drama (my jam) and it’s probably got the best use of a title that I’ve come across in all my reading. And then I read a book for work.

Next Up!
So, Snotties. That’s it for now! Join us in December, LATE December, when we share our best and worst lists for the year.

Until then, happy reading!


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Want to read more from Jennifer? Check her out at www.jenniferspiegel.com

Want to see what Lara is up to? Stay right here at www.onelitchick.com