BOOKS: Harlem Shuffle: Colson Whitehead

·2 min read

Oct. 2—Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead has carved out an enviable niche as a writer.

That niche is the freedom to write whatever he wants — no matter the genre.

Most writers become pigeonholed into a genre: thrillers, romance, fantasy, science fiction, mysteries, etc., or they fall in the head-nodding camp of literature.

Whitehead has written fantasy ("The Underground Railroad," with the historic slave-freeing network as an actual underground railroad), dystopian sci-fi ("Zone One," a novel about a zombie apocalypse in plague/war-town New York City), historical fiction with a modern twist ("John Henry Days," a story that mixes the legend of the steel-driving man with the story of a modern journalist living on the junket circuit), coming-of-age drama ("The Nickel Boys," the story of youth dying and barely surviving in a nightmarish youth detention center).

And now, a heist novel — "Harlem Shuffle."

Whitehead, like novelist Michael Chabon, seems to follow the philosophy that literature is not defined by genre. A fantasy book can be literature. A sci-fi book can be literature. Anything can be literature if written well and with insights into the human condition and the places where people live.

Even a heist novel.

"Harlem Shuffle" follows Carney, a Harlem furniture dealer pulled into the criminal world in the late 1950s through early 1960s.

Carney had planned to play life straight, unlike his father who skirted the criminal world, but a cousin pulls him into serving as a fence for a theft ... which goes wrong. However, Carney is able to make it right and enters a lucrative set-up as the go-between for stolen items.

Carney continues rising in the business world as fortune smiles upon his criminal career. As Whitehead reveals, Carney struggles with a dual life as striver and crook.

Through three set pieces a few years apart, Whitehead takes readers on a fun ride through a man's changing life as well as a New York City that is transforming from one era into the next.

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

Whitehead seems to have fun writing "Harlem Shuffle" and that translates into a fun book for readers.

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

Whitehead breathes deep and exhales expansively.

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