Review: Harlem Shuffle and Crook Manifesto by Colson Whitehead

My Quick Take: The first two books in Whitehead’s planned Harlem trilogy, I’m enjoying the story of Ray Carney though I’m not as invested as I have been in some of his earlier work.


“The way he saw it, living taught you that you didn’t have to live the way you’d been taught to live. You came from one place but more important was where you decided to go.” (Harlem Shuffle)

“He had been on the straight and narrow for four years, but slip once and everybody is glad to help you slip hard. Crooked stays crooked and bent hates straight. The rest is survival.” (Crook Manifesto)


Let me first say…I have done it! I have now finished my first Author in Depth project, in which I vowed to read all of an author’s works in order. This was the Colson Whitehead edition and it ends with Crook Manifesto. He’s busy writing the third book in this Harlem trilogy, so I was glad to close the page on this reading project before book three is published. Not that I won’t read it, but it feels awesome to have accomplished my goal. I started in January 2022, so it’s taken just short of two years.

I’m grouping Harlem Shuffle and Crook Manifesto together because they really are like contiguous books. The essentials to know are these:
  • The main character is Ray Carney, born and raised in Harlem. His late father Mike Carney was a crook, and Carney’s career as a furniture salesman has him trying to keep on the legit side of the law. He’s not always successful at it.
  • Harlem itself feels like a character. It is so well-drawn, a living and breathing neighbourhood. The action takes place between 1959-64 in Harlem Shuffle and 1971-76 in Crook Manifesto.
  • The books are divided into three parts, each of which serve as one “caper” in Carney’s life. Always, this is an escapade that keeps him in a tug-of-war between his straight and crooked sides.
The overarching tension centres on Carney and the liminal space between being honest or bent. Straight or crooked. Whitehead plays with this theme in many ways, and each section lends another perspective to the issue. One of my favourite ideas in Harlem Shuffle is “the dorvay, that midnight pasture,” a historical term for the old way of waking around midnight for a spell because of now-forgotten circadian rhythms that led some cultures to sleep in two shifts (“a wakeful interval around midnight”). Carney recognises this in his own life:
“Carney knew crime’s hours when he saw them–dorvay was crooked heaven, when the straight world slept and the bent got to work. An arena for thieving and scores, break-ins and hijacks, when the con man polishes the bait and the embezzler cooks the books. In-between things: night and day, rest and duty, the no-good and the up-and-up. Pick up a crowbar, you know the in-between is where all the shit goes down.”
This is Carney’s familiar territory, the psychological and physical place that he lives in and calls home. Time and time again in these novels we see him rise and fall, emerge from and almost drown in the dorvay. Carney’s got a good heart, always, but flirting with the dark side is so very compelling, for many and varied reasons.

And anyway, being crooked isn’t at all exclusive territory of the traditional criminal element. I love how Whitehead plays with ideas of what it means to be a crook, and how money, privilege and social currency are often disguises to hide the wrong-doings of the powerful. In the last story in Crook Manifesto, an arson in an apartment building that critically injures the child of one of Carney’s tenants spurs him to hire friend Pepper to hunt down the folks responsible. The responsible party may be up-and-coming local politician and childhood nemesis Alexander Oakes. Corruption runs deep:
“He was here tonight because a boy he didn’t know was caught in a fire, and a spark had caught Carney’s sleeve. To avenge–who? The boy? To punish bad men? Which ones–there were too many to count. The city was burning. It was burning not because of sick men with matches and cans of gas but because the city itself was sick, waiting for fire, begging for it…From what he understood about human beings, today’s messes and cruelties were the latest version of the old ones. Same flaws, different face. All of it passed down.”
A special shout out to Pepper, Carney’s stand-in father figure, a crook who means business but has a softer side too. Pepper was Carney’s dad’s crony and Pepper’s there to watch out for Carney, in a way. But Pepper also represents the best of the crook life for Carney, a doorway into another caper, another take. The pull of the crooked.
“There was no hiding Pepper’s personality, which was December when the days got shorter and shorter; cold and relentless. Inevitable. He didn’t like Christmas trees, or babies, or owing anybody anything. Any smile that broke out on his face was a mutiny swiftly put down. He was not there to present you with an oversized check from the sweepstakes company or a dinner invitation from Raquel Welch. Pepper was an emissary from the ugly side of things, to remind you how close it was.”
That description of Pepper is a good example of Whitehead’s wordsmithing. His prose, as always, is magical and absorbing in this pair of books. As is often the case, I needed to pay full attention to the narrative as I read, because his sentences and ideas are complex and demand a close reading. After I finished Harlem Shuffle, I will admit to being less enamoured with it than some of his other books. I appreciated the themes and tensions Whitehead presented through his character study of Carney, but they didn’t feel quite as deep as some of his other works. After reading Crook Manifesto, that sense has dissipated somewhat; having another book to show the reader Carney’s continued evolution and struggle gave more of the depth I craved.

That said, these books will not be my favourite of his novels, but even a Whitehead novel that isn’t my favourite is still a cut above. Though my project to read his entire oeuvre is over, I’ll be picking up the third book in the Harlem saga when it’s out.