In the first chapter of his book Harlem Shuffle, Colson Whitehead sucked me right into his world. It was serendipity. His main character, Ray Carney, was driving in his truck to see Aronowitz, an old man who was a wizard at fixing up TVs and radios. Aronowitz had a shop full of tubes, TV tubes, radio tubes. It’s 1959, that’s what was inside radios and TVs in those days. I felt at home because my father’s basement workshop was full of those same tubes and the neighbors’ TVs and radios that needed repairs.’
Ray Carney is the owner of a furniture store at a good spot on 125 th street. He precariously straddles a life as a proud small businessman and a fence for stolen goods, because he can’t seem to leave behind his crooked cousin Freddie, his almost brother since early childhood. As Freddie’s life deteriorates, Carney’s life improves, but it is a life and death struggle. Between characters like Miami Joe, Chink Montague, and Pepper who keep pulling him into illegal schemes and the beat cop, Detective Munson, making him pay protection, getting ahead was like maneuvering through a minefield. It did help that criminals switched girlfriends a lot and bought a new dinette set for each lady friend.
There is a heist that Carney is roped into by Freddie and there is the rumor of an extremely valuable necklace. How far will Carney go to protect his dream and his ‘new apartment fund’, his wife Elizabeth and his little son and daughter? How far will he have to go? When Carney is moved to take revenge against Wilfred Dukes for one betrayal too many, Carney shows his focus and effectiveness, which suggest that he would have made a better crook than most of the crooks around him. Then Harlem erupts in violence when a young black man is killed by a policeman without any justification. Carney hunkers down in his store with his Heywood-Wakefield furniture lines and his Argent recliners and stays there day and night until the riots end and his store is safe, because the riots did not come to his little corner of the world
Most of us, if we are trying to get ahead in business do not have to face the challenges that Ray Carney had to face. There is a good argument in this story for taking Carney’s businessman route as opposed to the chaos of pursuing illegal means to get rich. Some people who break laws and learn to be tough, who will kill at the slightest provocation may manage to find their way into a legal and better life, but the odds are not great. Once Freddie meets Linus, a rich and interesting guy and an addict, Freddie’s fate is sealed, and Carney ends up in possession of that necklace full of emeralds which he has no idea how to rid himself of. This is a story of Harlem, but it could just as easily take place in any modern city. Colson Whitehead once again shows his chops as a writer.