Colson Whitehead returns to Harlem in ‘Crook Manifesto’

Little more than 100 pages into Colson Whitehead’s remarkable new novel, “Crook Manifesto,” a sequel to the best-selling “Harlem Shuffle,” Herschel “Uncle Heshie” Lefkowitz, a minor character and an inventor, offers two ways to define creators, inventors, artists: “Those who identified deficiencies and provided remedies” and “those who could see the invisible, discover what was lacking, and will it into existence.”

With these books, Whitehead has identified deficiencies in the noir genre, and injected beauty and grace into its often too-predictable and clichéd conventions. He saw an invisible post-World War II Harlem epic, a decades-long journey through the most consequential urban Black space in the 20th century, and he willed it into existence through the exploits of Ray Carney, a successful furniture salesman from a lineage of ne’er-do-wells who struggles to balance respectability, family life and disreputable allegiances. Whitehead has also again provided a direct challenge to how readers and the publishing industry should think of genre fiction compared with literary fiction, a salvo similar to his sci-fi novel “Zone One” and his historical fantasy “The Underground Railroad.”

On the surface, Whitehead’s two most recent books are crime novels: fast, episodic, organized around different capers with a rotating cast of memorable supporting characters, like Uncle Heshie, who are quick to provide a laugh or a piece of noir wisdom.

Whitehead has said he’s writing a trilogy. Readers should hope he doesn’t stop there.

For all its slapstick fun, this project also has the same gravitas as August Wilson’s seminal 10-play Century Cycle, about Black life in Pittsburgh during the 20th century, a decade-by-decade journey through Black America’s tortured yet breathtaking memory. Carney and his supporting cast hold up well against classic Wilson characters such as Troy Maxson in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fences and the titular Ma Rainey from “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

We move through the criminal underbelly beside crooked cops, derelict scions of New York royalty, politicians, film stars, radicals, small-time crooks of varying interests with too-big eyes who find themselves with big-time problems. All the while, we root for Carney. We hope he can make a stable life for himself, his wife, Elizabeth, and their children.

“Crook Manifesto” starts in the summer of 1971.

The Jackson 5 are coming to town. Carney wants to get tickets for his 15-year-old daughter, May. He first asks around the well-to-do Harlem social circle, members of the Dumas Club, the connected, legitimate Black folks. When they can’t help him, he turns to Munson, a crooked White detective. Thus begins Carney’s slide back into crime.

The first section is titled “Ringolevio,” a child’s street game, a version of tag with jails and jailbreaks. It’s a cute title, but the complexity and specificity, as in all great literature, elevate the situation. Whitehead goes on a beautiful extended riff, early in the book, about how Carney and his community are changing.

Black Power, particularly an ambitious group called the Black Liberation Army, has surfaced in Harlem. Carney, true to his generation, views these younger militants and their rhetoric as a nuisance. He resents the influence they have on his sweet daughter.

“Half her conversation these days came from 125th Street flyers: ‘It all goes back to the miseducation of the Negro, Daddy.’ Black Power guys and their pamphlets were worse than Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

He misses when May used to smile, her “mask of joy.” The Jackson 5, those boys from Gary, Ind., bring back May’s innocence. “When Carney hollered across the house that the Jackson 5 were on Flip Wilson it conjured that face from bygone days.”

Later in the section, as the plot to find tickets gets messy, Carney riffs on his dead cousin, Freddie, and the game they used to play, Ringolevio.

“The sun throbbed on windows and chrome and broken glass and then came Freddie’s head popping out from behind the moving van, scoping out the territory, gauging his changes. Carney hopped on the stoop like a base runner, arm outstretched: I’m here, get me outta here.”

The second section, titled “Nefertiti T.N.T.,” takes place in 1973 and focuses on a young filmmaker named Zippo and his attempt to make a Blaxploitation film about a Black heroine in “one of those more-secret-than-the-CIA operations, working for the man, but really working for the Black Nation from the inside.” Although Carney’s furniture store is used as a set, he’s mostly in the background. It’s a ridiculous plot line, executed with plenty of humor. Still, Whitehead gives us typically smart insights into filmmaking, class politics and the difficulty of predicting consumer interest. What happens to the Blaxploitation artists when audience preference shifts to “sober dramas about black life, not ghetto shenanigans”?

The final section, set three years later during America’s bicentennial, traces a spate of fires alongside the rise of Alexander Oakes, a promising politician and a childhood friend of Carney’s wife. We come back to Carney and stay mostly with his perspective as Harlem crumbles. Here there is an echo of the previous book, a motif of destruction followed by introspection followed by resilience.

“Harlem Shuffle” started in 1959 and ended with mid-1960s turmoil. Carney’s cousin Freddie was dead, the victim of a caper gone wrong. Harlem was recovering from the 1964 race riots.

In the final pages of the earlier novel, Carney found himself in Lower Manhattan, near the World Trade Center construction site.

He connected the construction to the riots.

“The devastation had been nothing compared to what lay before him now … if you bottled the rage and hope and fury of all the people of Harlem and made it into a bomb, the results would look something like this.”

In this extended moment of contemplation, the reader sees Carney as a man struggling with change, trying to find order in the surrounding chaos.

When Carney is reflecting, attempting to better understand how Black Harlemites and Black Americans have survived before and will survive again, Whitehead is at his best. It makes this story feel important — not just entertaining, not just suspenseful, not just another surefire bestseller from a beloved author.

These are crime novels, yes; funny and fast-paced. They are also the first two installments of a grand historical epic. Novel writing at its best. Bigger and better, together, than anything Whitehead has written before.

Gabriel Bump is the author of “Everywhere You Don’t Belong.” His second novel, “The New Naturals,” will be published in November.

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