Photos: Colson Whitehead (Chris Close); Harlem (Austin Hansen/The New York Public Library Digital Collections)
Colson Whitehead Resurrects a Life of Crime in ‘Crook Manifesto’
In the 'Harlem Shuffle' sequel, a Jackson 5 concert leads Ray Carney back to his felonious ways / BY Nathalie Atkinson / August 4th, 2023
For Colson Whitehead, Manhattan’s layered, ever-changing landscape is a place the lifelong New Yorker returns to again and again. Its iterations range from Zone One’s zombie virus horror to the dystopia of his 1999 debut The Intuitionist. His ability to blend science fiction and fantasy with historical narrative has won the bestselling author a slew of major literary aways, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction — twice — for his grim but gripping explorations of institutional racism in The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys. “Different kinds of characters, different kinds of tools,” he says. “But I’m really just talking about the world.”
The next conversation he wanted to have; about power structures, racial injustice and the class divide, he felt would be best told using tropes from the hardboiled point of view of thieves, strivers and schemers. That planned crime trilogy kicked off in 2021 with Harlem Shuffle and continues with Crook Manifesto. Each novel loosely spans a decade in the life and crimes of Black furniture salesman and occasional fence Ray Carney. The sequel is set in Harlem between 1971 and 1976 and like its predecessor is a wild ride; while also exposing the practice of redlining, how structural racism perpetuates intergenerational wealth inequality and the corruptions of urban renewal.
Whitehead says centering the story around a fence (a transactional role typically peripheral to heist stories) was deliberate. “One foot in the straight world and one foot in the crooked world — that division played off quite productively in terms of his psychology,” Whitehead told me when I caught up with him during a stop in Dallas, ahead of his Canadian book tour next week. Carney, he says, has a certain amount of half-hearted self-delusion about his crookedness and his upstanding identity. That idea of keeping different selves in different compartments comes partly from Patricia Highsmith’s anti-hero Tom Ripley, who’s similarly in denial as to his true nature. In fact most of Whitehead’s characters are engaged in some sort of subterfuge — the corrupt Wall Street fat cats and real estate moguls, as well as: “the Black upper class of lawyers and accountants and politicians who are engaged in terrible shenanigans.”
Retail in Harlem is a perfect legit front for a fence while also being an ideal perch for a novelist to observe the changing fabric of the neighbourhood over time. “Despite never having had a real job,” Whitehead laughs, “I like writing about jobs and teasing out metaphorical implications.” You can tell a lot about a character by the clothes they wear — or in Crook Manifesto’s case, the way people furnish their space. DeMarco leather loungers, Egon recliners — like Whitehead, Carney thinks a lot about the semiotics of sofas. It’s not uncommon for a character to pause his internal monologues at a crucial moment for a sardonic aside about an orange leather couch, say. “He’s deep into it, it’s humorous and it speaks to his eccentric character but also does have great resonance in terms of people’s lives,” the author, who in writing has become something of an expert on mid-century furnishings (and has the Pinterest boards to back it up), observes. “It’s aspirational, a rite of passage, at the intersection of class and mobility.”
From faded Tiki bars, blaxploitation auteurs and an edgy comedian modelled on Richard Pryor to Jack LaLanne and L’Eggs pantyhose, Crook Manifesto conjures the 1970s with all its pop cultural and political trappings.
Fade in: Thanks to revelations made by NYPD detective Frank Serpico, the Knapp Commission is investigating police corruption. It’s a New York plagued by financial crisis and high crime rates. “Things were in decline here and there at the edges of Carney’s vision,” he writes. “Half-finished graffiti on the metal grate of a closed-down drugstore; a crop of overflowing garbage cans past due for pickup; the aftermath of a smashed windshield, glass squares on the asphalt like knocked-out teeth.”
“I was writing about a time when the city was depleted,” Whitehead explains of mining the crumbling city’s fallow period. “But if you look back, coming out of that there is the birth of hip hop, the birth of disco, the birth of punk and artists are working. I definitely felt I was tapping into that New York’s regenerative energy.” He’s also looking ahead to the third and final instalment, where Carney navigates the various ups and downs of the 1980s. (After thriving again, the city and decade end in yet another downturn with the crack epidemic, the AIDS crisis and a looming recession.)
In the first novel, Carney was starting a family and trying to get ahead; by the 1970s he’s successful and established — an interesting time to be drawn back into his past life of crime. Radical Black Panther splinter group the Black Liberation Army is active in the city. Black Power politics are reshaping the country, the city and even his own household: the consciousness of Carney’s flinty 15-year-old daughter May has been raised while she follows the Panther 21 bomb conspiracy trial. She’s also obsessed with the Jackson 5, and when Carney needs to score tickets to their sold-out Madison Square Garden show, it sets a series of events in motion.
Whitehead deliberately chose a Jackson 5 concert, because not only was it true to music history, but also the group’s cultural saturation. The boy band allows the author a brief but satisfying passage of cultural critique on capitalism, marketing and their various breakfast cereal endorsements that folds into the novel thematically. It’s the same idea of presenting a public persona, Whitehead says, that he’s exploring with Carney and other characters. “We now know they were being abused by their father,” he enumerates, “and know what Michael Jackson gets up to when he gets older. So there is that facade of fun and geniality. But of course there’s a corruption underneath. The choice pays off.”
While some inspiration comes from Highsmith, Richard Stark’s Parker series was the starting point of the trilogy. “The language is so fleet and compelling and efficient,” Whitehead says of the brutal 1960s and 1970s crime thrillers. He also appreciates their efficiency. “If you were less generous with the spacing, they’d be novellas.” The brevity influenced the three-act structure of Harlem Shuffle and Crook Manifesto, where each book features three novella-length related but individual stories. That, and they explore a seedy underworld populated by brutal sociopathic cops and remorseless hoods not unlike Whitehead’s own corrupt cop Munson and kingpins Chink Montague and Notch Walker (the best crook names since Chester Himes’ Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones).
Two of the three stories in Crook Manifesto take place in that oppressive weather particular to New York summers — with images of Carney’s staff huddled beneath the store’s air conditioning unit, or vividly evoking the stench of an oven-like room at an abandoned biscuit factory. The malodorous vapours and hissing heat of New York summers feature regularly in Whitehead’s work. “Sweet June nights like this, before the summer crashed down, were rare in the city,” Whitehead wrote in the Central Park essay of his 2003 Colossus of New York; “like honest mayors and playgrounds free of nodding junkies and broken bottles.”
Anchoring the story during summer is partly a necessity of writing fictional timelines that incorporate urban geography and real history (be it a trial verdict, riots, destructive residential and commercial fires or America’s bicentennial year festivities). But the heat wave-fuelled atmosphere speaks to Whitehead in other ways, as a crucible. It’s the Dog Day Afternoon factor — “that moment where the city changes, when heat becomes this transformative power and people are sort of pushed to the limit. It seems like a perfect time for crime.”
If Highsmith’s Ripley is Carney’s spiritual ancestor, the great Chester Himes is his template: his masterful hardboiled Harlem Detective series was similarly grounded in history, peeling back the city’s layers real and imagined. “He drove slowly south on Broadway, south of 145 Street the Puerto Ricans were taking over, crowding out the Germans and the French who’d gotten there first,” Himes writes in his 1958 novel Run Man Run. “It was like a dark cloud moving over Manhattan, he thought. But it wasn’t his problem; he’d leave it to the city planners, to Commissioner Moses and his men.”
The boom and bust cycles of gentrifications (a never-ending game of snakes and ladders) in Crook Manifesto likewise probe the corruption behind urban renewal initiatives, with passages that chronicle the violence of upheaval that defines cities. The narratives unfold against the backdrop of evolution of New York and its neighbourhoods through successive generations and waves of demographic shifts. For example, a character might casually reference when East Harlem “was the biggest Little Italy this side of the Atlantic,” the Strivers’ Row townhouses and landmark Hotel Theresa (the Waldorf of Harlem), the city’s ill-fated partnership with the RAND Institute on mathematical modelling of budget cuts that led to the fatal withdrawal of fire protection from poorer neighbourhoods, or the underground Fear City pamphlets designed to keep tourists out of New York.
Crook Manifesto delivers on sentence-level pleasures and energetic action as well as its sprawling historical canvas — I soon found myself reading it the way some people watch The Crown: making notes of places, people and events to look up more expansively later. Carney’s brief sojourn into the high-stakes underground games of Garment District goulash joints (‘ghoulie,’ to old-timers), for example, captured my imagination, so now High Roller, a biopic of 1970s card prodigy Stu Ungar , is on my watchlist. Whitehead, who has a love of subcultures and lore, admits he goes down his fair share of digressive research holes for what might only amount to a couple sentences. He recognizes the movie title, and laughingly warns me he only made it “like 10 minutes in — it was really terrible.”
Some details are generated even closer to home, like one incident that highlights Manhattan’s never-ending real estate hustle. When Carney discovers that the baker next door has collapsed, he allows a 45-minute grace period “out of respect for the dead.” That bit is autobiographical, the author recalls with a chuckle. When he came home from high school one day to ambulances responding to a suicide at their apartment building. “And my dad was immediately calling the landlord: ‘I heard apartment 11 D might have an opening.’” Only in New York, kids, only in New York.