The heist, which takes up the first section of the book, is brilliantly executed, both by its participants and by its omniscient author. In describing the (fictional) stickup of the (real) Hotel Theresa — down-on-its-luck “headquarters of the Negro world” — Whitehead’s prose becomes taut, electric and gleeful. “Robbing the Hotel Theresa,” Whitehead writes, was like “slipping Jackie Robinson a Mickey the night before the World Series.” The novel treats the hotel itself as a microcosm of Harlem, and each civilian caught in the heist is tagged with a supple biography. Had Whitehead ended the book after this fierce and funny section, it would stand as one of the few perfect novellas in American literature.
Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on your taste — Whitehead keeps going; and the rest of the book yields mixed results.
“Harlem Shuffle” is structured as a three-part mini-series set in 1959, 1961 and 1964. As it progresses, anti-police-shooting rebellions roil Harlem; old slick gangsters give way to a new breed of “hotheaded, feral, ever-trifling” hoods; and “the Junkie Shake, that new dance,” becomes “all the rage.” The flavor of each episode varies ever so slightly, but they are linked by Carney and his ne’er-do-well cousin Freddie, who is always pulling Carney into chancy schemes against his will.
If the first episode is a portrait of a reluctant crook, by the second episode, Carney is a contented family man, moving up in the world, expanding his showroom, more at ease with being a fence. He is also smarting with anger over being cheated out of $500 by a sleazy Harlem banker who fails to deliver on the promise of membership to an elite club of Harlem movers and shakers. For the next 100 pages, in an often wobbly plot — “I have to take care of one thing before I can do another thing, and I have to do something else before I can do that,” Carney explains, a bit too aptly — Carney concocts an elaborate revenge against the banker.
Like the heist, though, this revenge goes perfectly, with few consequences for Carney — and the book loses energy as a result. Instead of forcing Carney’s self-image into crisis, Whitehead gives us less-than-original observations about how everyone’s a crook. In fact, after the riveting danger of the first section, Whitehead protects Carney from real harm for much of the novel, and many scenes — peopled with a sitcom-grade angelic wife, evil in-laws, and criminals marvelously free of misogyny or sexual violence — have the dreamy feel of a comic book. The darkness — of Carney’s lonely childhood, of drug abuse, of violent crime — is pushed to the corners, bursting out only occasionally, as in one character’s superbly depressing and sinister flashback about building a supply line in Burma during World War II. And while I valued Whitehead’s attempt to write a serene character on the verge of success — extremely hard to pull off in fiction — I longed for the taut prose of “The Nickel Boys,” where every sentence, spat out laconically, advances the grim story.