The Heist, which occupies the first part of the book, is brilliantly executed, both by its participants and by its omniscient author. Describing the (fictitious) heist of the (real) Hotel Theresa – the unlucky “black world headquarters” – Whitehead’s prose becomes tense, electric and joyful. “Stealing the Theresa Hotel,” Whitehead wrote, was like “dragging Jackie Robinson into Mickey Mouse the day before the World Series”. The novel treats the hotel itself as a microcosm of Harlem, and each civilian caught in the junkyard is tagged with a flexible biography. If Whitehead had finished the book after this fierce and funny section, it would be one of the few perfect novels in American literature.
Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on your taste – Whitehead continues; and the rest of the book gives mixed results.
“Harlem Shuffle” is structured as a three-part miniseries set in 1959, 1961, and 1964. As it progresses, anti-police rebellions rock Harlem; the cunning old gangsters give way to a new breed of “brash, savage, always insignificant” balaclavas; and “the Junkie Shake, this new dance” becomes “in fashion”. The flavor of each episode varies very slightly, but they are linked by Carney and her cautious cousin Freddie, who always draws Carney into haphazard ploys against her will.
If the first episode is the portrait of a reluctant crook, in the second episode Carney is a satisfied family man, moving in the world, expanding his showroom, more comfortable being a fence. He’s also furious that he was swindled out of $ 500 by a sleazy Harlem banker who broke his promise to join an elite Harlem Movers and Shakers Club. For the next 100 pages, in an often wobbly plot – “I have to take care of one thing before I can do anything else, and I have to do something else before I can do it,” says Carney, a little too tight – Carney concocts an elaborate revenge against the banker.
As The Heist, however, this revenge unfolds perfectly, with little consequence for Carney – and the book loses energy as a result. Instead of forcing Carney’s self-image into a crisis, Whitehead gives us less than original observations about how everyone is a con artist. In fact, after the fascinating danger of the first section, Whitehead shields Carney from real harm for much of the novel and many scenes – populated by a sitcom-quality angelic wife, evil in-laws, and wonderfully criminals. free from misogyny or sexuality. violence – have the dream impression of a comic book. The darkness – of Carney’s lonely childhood, drug addiction, violent crime – is pushed into nooks and crannies, only occasionally erupting, as in a superbly depressing and sinister flashback of a character about the building of a supply line in Burma during World War II. And while I enjoyed Whitehead’s attempt to write a serene character on the verge of success – extremely difficult to achieve in fiction – I craved the tense prose of “The Nickel Boys,” where every sentence, laconically spit , advances the dark history.