BOOKS: Harlem Shuffle: Colson Whitehead

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October 2 — Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead has carved out an enviable place for himself as a writer.

This niche is the freedom to write whatever he wants, no matter the genre.

Most writers fall into one genre: thrillers, romance, fantasy, science fiction, mysteries, etc., or fall into the literature camp.

Whitehead wrote fantasy (“The Underground Railroad”, with the historic Slave Liberation Network as a true underground railroad), dystopian science fiction (“Zone One”, a novel about a zombie apocalypse in the plague city / war of New York City), historical fiction with a modern twist (“John Henry Days”, a story that mixes the legend of the man behind the wheel of steel with the story of a modern journalist living on the circuit of the junket), coming-of-age drama (“The Nickel Boys”, the story of a young dying and barely surviving in a nightmarish youth detention center).

And now for a heist novel – “Harlem Shuffle”.

Whitehead, like novelist Michael Chabon, seems to follow the philosophy that literature is not defined by genre. A fantastic book can be literature. A science fiction book can be literature. Anything can be literature if it is well written and with an insight into the human condition and the places where people live.

Even a junkyard novel.

“Harlem Shuffle” follows Carney, a Harlem furniture dealer immersed in the criminal world from the late 1950s to early 1960s.

Carney had planned to play the righteous life, unlike his father who rubbed shoulders with the criminal world, but a cousin trains him to serve as a fence for a theft … which goes wrong. However, Carney is able to get it right and enters a lucrative setup as a middleman for stolen items.

Carney continues to advance in the business world as fortune smiles on his criminal career. As Whitehead reveals, Carney struggles with a double life of wrestler and crook.

Through three stationary pieces just a few years apart, Whitehead takes readers on a fun ride through the changing life of one man as well as New York City that is changing from era to era.

Whitehead writes “Harlem Shuffle” in a different style than the back-to-back Pulitzer winners “The Underground Railroad” and “The Nickel Boys,” which are also written in different ways.

Whitehead seems to be having fun writing “Harlem Shuffle” and it results in a fun book for readers.

This style, the characters and the sense of place and time are engaging. Literature lives where good writers breathe it.

Whitehead takes a deep breath and exhales widely.


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