COLSON WHITEHEAD IS one of the most talented storytellers in contemporary fiction, and watching him change his approach and flex new muscles is a hugely entertaining reading experience. Having already tackled everything from zombies to metaphorical railroads, Whitehead turned to noir and humor for his latest outing, Harlem mix. Both a character study of a furniture salesman living in New York in the early 1960s and a narrative that explores how even good people can be slightly twisted for all the right reasons, Harlem mix is a funny, violent novel that doubles as a love letter to New York’s seedy underbelly and the plethora of characters that make it unique.
Ray Carney owns a furniture store in Harlem and lives in a small apartment across from the subway tracks with his pregnant wife Elizabeth and their child. Carney is doing well and his business is legit, but he has deep roots in the underworld of crime. These come from his father, who was a full-time petty criminal, and his cousin Freddie, who does the same and has a long history of issues with Carney. And some things never change. With one kid at home and another on the way, it’s easy for Carney to start getting into things a little less legitimate than selling couches, so he occasionally moves stolen goods around for Freddie.
When Freddie lands on a team planning to rob Theresa’s hotel, known as the “Waldorf of Harlem”, he brings in Carney to move some of the stolen property. Nothing about the job goes as planned, but Carney soon finds himself working regularly with the rogue cops, mobsters, thieves, and other thugs that make up Harlem’s underworld. However, his dream of being a successful businessman – someone who has nothing to do with the world his father lived in – is still there. Unfortunately, his need for money is greater than his desire for legitimacy, so Carney involves himself in more jobs and ends up becoming the boss when he exacts revenge on a powerful banker who defrauded him, a event that opened Carney’s eyes and showed him how high corruption is in New York.
Harlem mix it’s a lot of things. On the surface, it’s a detective story with a family saga at its heart. However, as readers would expect from Whitehead, the narrative is also an exploration of the dynamics of race and power that coexists with a story about the eternal battle between ethics and need whenever money comes in. in the equation.
The first striking element of this novel is its structure. More than a classic tale with an inciting incident, Whitehead has written what feels like three or four short stories seamlessly woven by the same characters, with Carney still the epicenter. After Theresa’s hotel job, what looked like the story’s main problem quickly morphs into something else — aftermath and a new job — and then finally morphs into something entirely new. These continuous changes move the story forward at all times and allow the characters to become more important than anything that is happening at the moment.
Ray Carney is a memorable character whose struggles are universal even though his reasons for doing what he does are unique. Whitehead created a character who dabbled in crime simply because he wanted a better life. For Carney, hurting others is never the goal; he just knows that doing the wrong things can help him do the right things he wants to do and achieve the upward social mobility he’s always dreamed of:
The apartment door snagged on the chain – only Alma locked it when he was out – and he had to knock to be let into his own house. A crook in the morning and this lady in the evening. He waited. The odd couple next door had left a bag of something disgusting outside their door and the marks and grime in the hallways were sticking out more than usual. Sometimes the rumble of the train moved through the steel struts and concrete and into the building and he felt it in his feet, like now. How had he subjected his wife and child to this place all this time?
As with most of Whitehead’s work, Harlem mix is painfully precise and wonderfully unapologetic in its presentation of racism. From the differences Carney observes in the way white people navigate the world to a cop shooting a black child and getting away with the consequences, this novel presents racial tension as it was in the early 1960s, an era which is by no means old. the story. However, there are also many examples of black excellence – the list of incredible musicians alone deserves a separate essay – and the kind of writing that celebrates the resilience of black people and how they have learned to function in a country. who never welcomed them. Elizabeth works for a travel agency that caters to black people, and a description of a card in her office sums it up perfectly:
On the wall of Elizabeth’s office, they had a map of the United States and the Caribbean with pins and a red marker to indicate cities and towns and routes promoted by Black Star. Stay on the path and you will be safe, eat in peace, sleep in peace, breathe in peace; mislead and beware. Work together and we can overthrow their evil order. It was a map of the black nation within the white world, part of the bigger thing but itself, independent, with its own constitution. If we didn’t help each other, we would be lost there.
Harlem mix is memorable because of the way it brings together a family saga, a heist romance, and a superb, meticulously researched depiction of street life in 1960s Harlem. However, Ray Carney is what most readers will remember the most. He is a normal man who finds himself involved in very particular situations while trying to change his life, and in that he is like everyone who has ever done it, which means that his victories are like ours, and his failures too: “The mistake was to believe that he had become someone else. That the circumstances that shaped him were different, or that overcoming those circumstances was as simple as moving to a better building or d learn to speak correctly.
Colson Whitehead is an outstanding chronicler of our times who also has a knack for bringing the past to the page with incredible clarity, and Harlem mix proves it once again.
Gabino Iglesias is the author of coyote songs (2018) and Zero Saints (2015).