“Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked . . .”
This is how Colson Whitehead introduces us to his protagonist, Ray Carney.
Ray is a young husband, father, and businessman in Harlem. His father was one of the most notorious criminals in Harlem, but Ray sought to distance himself from that life, and he put himself through college and opened his own furniture store. Yes, he sells some merchandise with questionable origins, and sure, the funds he used to open his shop were a posthumous gift of sorts from his father, but he’s doing his best to become a self-made man in Harlem.
Freddie is Ray’s cousin. The two men were raised almost like brothers, given the early death of Ray’s mother and then the occasional absence and eventual death of Ray’s father. Freddie, who was raised by an honest and hardworking mother, has little use for honest work or the appearance of honest work. Just as Ray attempted to be the opposite of his father, Freddie saw his mother work hard without benefitting from it and turned to crime without a knack for it. “I didn’t mean to get you in trouble,” is Freddie’s regular response after getting himself and Ray into trouble in childhood and beyond.
It is Freddie who gets Ray involved with the heist at the Hotel Theresa, known as the Waldorf of Harlem. Ray has no idea he has been named as the man who will help them sell the stolen goods until after the theft when he ends up in a post-heist huddle with a group of hardened criminals. When one of the conspirators is found dead, Ray gets a crash course in crime, including how to dispose of a body.
While Ray is able to get himself out of the mess Freddie pulled him into and even profits from it, the events change him. On the outside, he is thriving for the first time, but a new ambition has been lit within him. Ray has always had disdain for his snobby in-laws, who are among the wealthy Black professionals of Harlem’s Strivers’ Row. He understands that the Strivers’ Row group is every bit as crooked as the hustlers of Harlem, only they know the legal loopholes that make crookedness safe and lucrative. But with his first taste of success, Ray now wants to be one of the Strivers’ Row elite and a member of the Dumas Club.
Just when Ray thinks he has his life in order, Freddie, who has kept a low profile in Ray’s life since the Hotel Theresa heist, is back and this time he gets Ray into trouble with the white patricians of New York. Ray has to use everything he knows about being “crooked” to save himself and his cousin.
The main question of Harlem Shuffle is, what does it mean to be crooked? In the late ‘50s/early ‘60s Harlem portrayed here, the “crooked” have a stronger sense of loyalty and honor than those perceived as straight or honest, and Ray finds that he can expect better of his father’s old associates than he can of his own Strivers End father-in-law. And after a lifetime of looking down on his father, Ray finally recognizes how much of his father lives on in him.
Harlem Shuffle is a thoughtful look at race and success in America, and it is also a fun read.
Book Club Menu:
Ray’s life may be complicated, but his palate is not. He is a man who prefers simple mid century meals. His ideal lunch would be two hot dogs and a coffee from Chock Full O’ Nuts. Being Midwestern AF, I thought Chock Full O’ Nuts is a coffee brand sold alongside Folgers and Maxwell House in the canned coffee section of the supermarket. Well, it is, but it was originally a classic NYC diner/lunch counter.
Therefore diner fare is the only appropriate Harlem Shuffle book club offering. However, I encourage you to update your sandwiches to 2022 by adding avocado to your BLTs and making my tomato basil grilled cheese in place of the American cheese version.
- BLTs with Avocado
- Tomato Basil Grilled Cheese
- Perfect Air Fries
- Dill pickles
- Root Beer Floats (both boozy and regular)
- Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee
If your book club would prefer wine to a boozy root beer float, Beaujolais would pair nicely with both sandwiches.
Tomato Basil Grilled Cheese
Once upon a time, a Michigan based burger chain named Bagger Dave’s had a magical grilled cheese they called the Michigan Meltdown. This sandwich had 3 types of cheese, tomato slices, basil, and red onion. They took it off the menu and replaced it with a naan grilled cheese, which was almost a fair trade because grilled cheese naans are insanely delicious even when they lack the special Michigan Meltdown ingredients. Then they removed the second grilled cheese from the menu, and I now have trust issues. Chock Full O’ Nuts would never betray me in this fashion.
Anyhow, this is my version of the Michigan Meltdown.
Tomato Basil Grilled Cheese
- 8 slices sourdough bread, with mayo spread on one side of bread
- 4 slices cheddar
- 4 slices provolone
- 4 slices swiss cheese
- 4 to 8 slices tomato, lightly salted
- 8 basil leaves
- Optional: thin red onion slices
- Pat tomato slices dry with a paper towel. Allow tomato slices, slightly salted, to rest on a paper towel layer for approximately 15 minutes. At the end of 15 minutes, pat it dry again.
- Place 4 slices of bread (or as many sandwiches, as your skillet will hold) in a cold skillet, mayo side down.
- Top each bread slice with 1 slice of swiss, a slice of provolone, tomato slice (or 2 slices depending on the size of your tomato), 2 basil leaves, red onion slices (if using), 1 slice of cheddar, and then top with remaining bread slices, mayo side up.
- Turn the burner to medium heat. Leave sandwiches for 3 to 4 minutes, then flip. Reduce heat to medium low. Cook for 2 to 3 more minutes.
Perfect Air Fries
Perfect Air Fries
- 2 Russet potatoes
- 1 tablespoon canola oil
- Optional seasonings: black pepper, garlic powder, and paprika
- Cut the potatoes into slices and place in a bowl of cold water. Let sit for 20 minutes.
- Preheat the air fryer to 400F.
- Pat potato slices dry with a paper towel, and then toss with 1 tablespoon of oil. Salt and add any other seasonings you wish to use.
- Place in the air fryer in a single layer and cook for about 8 minutes. After 8 minutes, flip the fries and air fry for another 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the size of your fries and your model of air fryer.
Boozy Root Beer Float
Boozy Root Beer Float
- 1 scoop vanilla ice cream
- 2 oz spiced rum (Kraken, or similar)
- Root beer
- Place a scoop of vanilla ice cream in a glass. Use an ice cream that is good enough that you’d eat it on its own.
- Add 2 ounces of rum and then top with root beer.
Variation: If you need a lactose free float, try using a coconut milk based ice cream, as the slight coconut flavor will pair well with the rum.