“Harlem Shuffle” is an atmospheric story about the thin line between criminality and honesty, the complexities of class and family and survival. The story takes place between 1959 and 1964 and is a family saga, mystery and story of intrigue. The novel takes on big issues, tells a complex story and is impeccably written.
Ray Carney owns a retail establishment selling furniture on 125th street. At the beginning of the novel he is visiting Mr. Aronowitz, on radio row, who repairs radios and televisions—and never asks Ray about how he came to own the items. This is the part of the book that begins with “Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked.”
Ray is aware of the risks and vagaries of illegal activity. He was raised by his father, big Mike Carney, after his mother died. His father’s business was almost exclusively illicit, although at times he did work as a mechanic. His father was unreliable so Ray spent a lot of his childhood with his aunt, Millie, and his cousin, Freddie. Freddie and Ray grew up as brothers. Ray went off to college and made efforts to avoid being like his father. “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.”
Ray is married to Elizabeth, they have a daughter May and a child on the way. Elizabeth comes from a well to do family and her parents, Alma and Leland Jones, do not approve of Ray. Alma and Leland live in the desirable Striver’s Row, “one of the most beautiful stretches in Harlem.” Ray and Elizabeth live in a tiny apartment with views into an air shaft. Ray is constantly looking for ways to move into a more desirable location.
Ray’s illicit activities are usually limited to the occasional sale of mysteriously obtained televisions and radios and the occasional movement of jewelry. Much of his activity comes as the result of Freddie dragging him into the activity, whether he wants to or not. But when Freddie tells him that he and some others plan to rob the Hotel Theresa, the “Waldorf of Harlem”, Ray pushes back. “Robbing the Hotel Theresa was like taking a piss on the Statue of Liberty.” After the robbery takes place, Ray finds himself pulled more and more into the criminal world of his father, including an unexpected relationship with Pepper, a cohort of his father. Add to all of this Freddie’s unusual relationship with Linus Van Wyck, the drug addicted son of Ambrose Van Wyck, and Ray finds himself dragged into worlds he never imagined.
Leland Jones, Elizabeth’s father, is a member of Harlem’s exclusive Dumas Club. The Dumas Club members consist of Harlem’s elite—doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs and politicians. “The Dumas was a paper bag club…Carney was too dark for admittance.”
Ray has a friend, Terrance Payne, who is a member of the Dumas Club and suggests that he will sponsor Ray for entry. Ray gives the idea some thought and decides to apply. He attends the mixer for potential new members. “It was a Striver’s Row crowd, no doubt, and Carney the only representative from ‘round Crooked Way.” Wilfred Duke, a banker in the process of starting a new savings institution in Harlem, is also head of the club. He introduces himself to Ray and suggests that a $500 bribe might move him to the top of consideration for admittance. Ray pays the bribe but does not get into the club. Thus begins the story of revenge.
Freddie’s criminal activities and Ray’s business of revenge find Ray living in two different worlds– his world of legal retail and a whole new and frightening criminal world. He divides his days into two sleeping periods and spends the waking hours between the sleeping hours split between legal and illicit activities. He refers to the waking hours allotted to the illegal activities as Dorvay. Even the legal activities are filled with corruption requiring payoffs to the police, and payoffs to the criminal world for protection. The illegal activities take Ray to places he never knew existed, including drug dens, prostitution rings and gambling enterprises. And thanks to the rich language in the novel, we get to travel to these places with Ray and experience exactly what he experiences.
In case you can’t tell, I really enjoyed this novel. It is wonderfully written and vivid, and describes an era and a place that most of us have not experienced. I did not want the novel to end, but alas, of course it did. This is one of the best of 2021 so far. You can reserve Harlem Shuffle at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.