When Whitehead burst into popular consciousness with the masterpiece The Underground Railroad and the even more remarkable The Nickel Boys, I had one of those silly proud moments, when the world suddenly discovers your private fandom. Here is a truly great writing talent with tremendous versatility, discipline, and courage, and now he is being recognized on the scale he deserves. Bravo!
Now, after the two disturbing, hard-hitting, novelistic explorations of American history from a Black perspective, Whitehead has returned to doing what he did previously: dazzling readers with yet a different genre.
I am the perfect audience for this book. I don't read genre fiction, but I love literary detective, crime, spy, or legal thrillers -- the genre plus something more. Graham Greene, Donald Westlake, Patricia Highsmith. I haven't read a huge number of these, but I adore them.
Then there's New York. For a time I read so much New York City historical fiction that I overdosed and had to kick -- until City On Fire, my favourite fiction in many years, brought me back. Harlem Shuffle indulged my love for historical New York.
I also love books with a strong sense of place. Late-1950s, early-1960s Harlem is practically a character in Harlem Shuffle.
All that, plus it's written by one of my all-time favourite writers. So clearly, take this rave review with a heaping spoon of loving bias. You may well read it and think, very nice, but... what's all the fuss about? That's fair. I say that about fiction all the time.
But if you read it, and you do love it, I hope you'll put Sag Harbor, Zone One, and Apex Hides the Hurt on your list, too.
* * * *
I never read reviews of books that I know I'm going to read anyway. I love to start a book completely fresh, without even reading the jacket blurbs, so it unfolds exactly as the author intended. Now that I've read Harlem Shuffle, I'm skimming some reviews. This first paragraph from The Guardian is a beauty.
For more than 20 years Colson Whitehead has delivered novels notable for cultural satire, racial allegory, genre expansion and quirkiness: The Intuitionist, Sag Harbor, Zone One, The Underground Railroad (Pulitzer #1), The Nickel Boys (Pulitzer #2). In his eighth novel, Harlem Shuffle, Whitehead offers a literary crime saga that is as delicious as it is nutritious, a much lighter meal than his previous two novels, which emerge from the real-life atrocities of slavery and a brutal reform school in the American south. Whether in high literary form or entertaining, page-turner mode, the man is simply incapable of writing a bad book.
I also loved this bit from The New York Times review.
Whitehead's sweet, sweaty, authoritative, densely peopled portrait of a Harlem in near perpetual summer is the most successful part of the book. Had I not known Whitehead was a talented shape-shifter, I — as an outsider to Harlem — would have believed he had only ever written about this setting.
* In chronological order:
great writers on new york, July 15, 2004 (one of my earliest posts!)
more from colson whitehead, same day!
colson whitehead writes in brooklyn, March 3, 2008
what i'm reading: apex hides the hurt, December 21, 2010
what i'm reading: sag harbor by colson whitehead, March 3, 2012
what i'm reading: zone one by colson whitehead, July 15, 2012
what i'm reading: invisible man meets the zombies of zone one, a little lit crit, July 27, 2012, with a little follow-up at the end of this post, July 28, 2012
what i'm reading: john henry days by colson whitehead, September 15, 2012
what i'm reading: the underground railroad by colson whitehead, October 29, 2016
what i'm reading: the nickel boys by colson whitehead, September 5, 2019
(And I've just noticed that in the 2019 post above, I also gathered all these posts!)