Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Fiction Review: Harlem Shuffle

When I decided to read for Black History Month, the first book I picked up was Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead, a Christmas gift from my husband. I was blown away by Whitehead's Underground Railroad (my review at the link) and couldn't wait to read his latest release, set in early 1960's Harlem.

Ray Carney has come a long way from his difficult childhood with an alcoholic, renowned criminal father. Ray runs an upstanding business, a furniture store on 125th Street in Harlem, with his name on the window in gold lettering, and is married to Elizabeth, whose parents live on the aptly-named Striver's Row. They look down on Ray and their small apartment across from the subway tracks, but Ray dreams of a nice apartment on Riverside Drive with a view of the park. In 1959, they have a little girl named May, and Elizabeth is pregnant with their second baby. Ray's business does pretty well, but he is constantly feeling the pressure of paying all of his bills, keeping the business in the black with so many people paying by installment plan, and wanting a better life for Elizabeth and his children. He grew up like a brother with his cousin, Freddie, since his father often disappeared for long stretches, and he'd stay with his aunt. He and Freddie are still close, though Freddie followed Ray's dad's example and makes his living as a criminal. It's mostly petty stuff, though, and if he occasionally offers Ray a few "gently used TV's" to resell in his store, Ray accepts them to add to his legitimate secondhand inventory and looks the other way. This time, though, Freddie has fallen in with some big-time crooks, and he drags Ray into it, offering his services as the fence. The plan is to rob a luxury hotel in Harlem, and as usual, the heist doesn't go completely as planned. Things happen, and Ray suddenly finds himself under the scrutiny of the police and with a new criminal clientele that makes him nervous ... but brings in more cash. As this goes on, Ray rises in the world, as his beloved cousin gets into even more trouble. Ray is constantly pulled between his legitimate business and the criminal one, with one foot in each world.

As usual, Whitehead has an incredible talent for bringing people, places, and times to life on the page. In this case, 1960's Harlem is so vibrantly depicted and real, you can almost hear the sounds, smell the smells, and feel the fear and rage of the race riots. He delves into all aspects of the setting and the time so that you almost feel like you are there, giving equal time on the page to the criminals and the up-and-coming Black businessmen of Harlem (who are sometimes equally crooked). Ray is a complex and intriguing character, caught as he is between two worlds, yearning to earn his way in the real world and prove he is nothing like his father, while being pulled inexorably toward the criminal underworld that is so enticing for its earning potential. This novel succeeds on many levels: as a family drama, a suspenseful crime novel, a historical picture of a time of open racial conflict, and a love letter to Harlem. I thoroughly enjoyed going on this ride into the past with Ray and his family.

318 pages, Doubleday

This book fits in the following 2022 Reading Challenges:

Mount TBR Challenge

Diversity Challenge (and February Mini-Challenge - Black)

New York (first of many, probably!) in Literary Escapes Challenge

Note: This post contains affiliate links. Purchases from these links provide a small commission to me (pennies per purchase), to help offset the time I spend writing for this blog, at no extra cost to you.


Visit my YouTube Channel for more bookish fun!


Listen to a sample of the audiobook here, with wonderful narration by Dion Graham, and/or download it from Audible. This novel sounds great on audio!


You can buy the book through, where your purchase will support the indie bookstore of your choice (or all indie bookstores)--the convenience of shopping online while still buying local!


Or you can order Harlem Shuffle from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.


  1. I've got this one on my radar and need to push it up higher on my TBR list.