In a radio interview Colson Whitehead said he was happy to work on this book after two that were such wearing and painful topics. I did love The Underground Railroad, despite of the grimness, but I just couldn’t read The Nickel Boys. You can tell he was having fun writing this tale that begins in 1959 Harlem and starts with these words: “Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked.”
We get to know Ray Carney as the proud young owner of a furniture store. His mother died when he was young and he learned to take care of himself while his father was “away” for days at a time, being a violent crook. He managed to get himself through college, set himself up in business, and marry a woman whose parents planned for her to do much better. Right away we learn that he is a kind-hearted guy, selling on a payment plan to a young couple, despite wondering whether he can make the rent for the store that month. He has a section of his store set aside for “gently used furniture” and he doesn’t ask where it came from.
While one might think Ray is an easy-going, take-it-as-it-comes-guy, it becomes apparent he is always working hard to improve life for himself and his family. This was especially clear in the section that occurs in 1961. He was nominated for the prestigious Dumas Club that his father-in-law was in, but despite paying the bribe required, he was not admitted. His plan to extract revenge for this humiliation involved a change in his sleep habits: after working at the store, he slept early in the evening, was awake for hours during the night, then slept again in the dawn hours. His plan worked so well that the bribe-taker was revealed for all his misdeeds and many were affected, including his father-in-law. The revenge was so satisfying.
Some of the descriptions and phrases are memorable. One I especially liked was the description of Pepper, one of the seriously crooked men Ray’s cousin Freddy brought into his life. “Pepper looked bemused, reminding Carney of a photo from National Geographic: a crocodile raising his lids above the waterline, gliding toward unsuspecting prey.” Two white men who were “enforcers” showed up at his business; Ray thought they looked like astronauts and thereafter referred to as the astronauts.
The narrator was Don Graham, and although I usually prefer not to notice them, he was noticeably good. In reading the parts with dialogue, he slowed and emphasized the “he said” or “Pepper said” to great effect.
This was such a pleasure to listen to; it was satisfying on so many levels.
Colson Whitehead, Harlem Shuffle, Doubleday, 2021, 318 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the public library.