Ray Colson just wants to get through life in one piece.
When the novel begins, Ray owns a small used goods and furniture store in Harlem, dealing mostly in honest trade. He and his wife are expecting their first child. Her parents, who live on Strivers Row in Harlem (the street name speaks for itself), don’t think much of Ray. They are sure their daughter could have done better for herself.
Ray had a challenging childhood, with a delinquent father, in more ways than one, and a dead mother. When his father disappeared for a couple of months, he went to live with his Aunt Millie, and his cousin, Freddie, and there he stayed. His aunt is a blessing. Freddie is a double edged sword.
Ray has a college education, but what can a black man who just wants to keep his head down do with that in 1950’s Harlem? He uses both the schooling he got on the streets and in the classroom to work sales both above and below board. He has a nose for quality new and used goods to display in his store. Behind the counter, he never deals in anything too shady or traceable. Ray is a smart and cautious man.
His cousin, Freddie, however is not. Freddie is always getting into trouble. When Freddie comes looking to Ray for assistance in handling the various scrapes he gets into, Ray is there for him like a brother. Freddie’s antics escalate until Ray has to use all of his wits to keep himself, his business and his family safe.
Harlem Shuffle is the July 2022 selection for my book club. I might not have picked it up otherwise. While I didn’t like it as much as Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, I’m glad I read it. I learned a few things, which is always a plus!
Although I was born almost two decades later than the main character, there are locations in the novel that are relatable and nostalgic. I remember early used electronics shops like Aronowitz’s and furniture stores much like Ray’s. Descriptions of the era brought back feelings from childhood. But as a white woman who grew up in middle class suburbia, much of the novel was like reading about a foreign land. Despite working both sides of the fence, pun intended, Ray is at heart a deeply honorable man who loves his family and his neighborhood. While I can’t begin to put myself in Ray’s shoes, I gained a deep respect for him. That was a fine accomplishment by the author.
My Rating 4.75 Stars, Grade A-