Review: Whitehead makes a fast-paced, funny return to Harlem | Entertainment

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“Crook Manifesto” by Colson Whitehead

Doubleday (319 pages, $29)

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If you thought scoring Taylor Swift tickets was tough, be thankful you weren’t Ray Carney trying to get a couple of tickets for his daughter to see the Jackson 5 at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1971. That could be murder.

Carney was the main character in Colson Whitehead’s boisterous 2021 novel, “Harlem Shuffle,” and he’s back in the sequel, “Crook Manifesto.”

Whitehead, a double Pulitzer Prize winner for “The Underground Railroad” and “The Nickel Boys,” has built an acclaimed career around experimenting with different genres. In the two Carney books (there’s reportedly a third in the offing), he combines the crime caper form with the Dickensian social novel and powers it all with a turbo charge of humor and a rich Harlem setting.

Readers met Carney in “Harlem Shuffle” as a young man trying to get out from under his legacy as the son of the late Big Mike Carney, a utility player in Harlem’s organized crime world. Ray has his own extralegal resume, most of it involving fencing stolen goods, but he’s trying to go legit by running a furniture store and marrying Elizabeth, the smart, independent daughter of well-off Black parents who do not approve of his hardscrabble background or his dark skin.

That novel’s three parts — both books are structured as a trio of novellas set a few years apart — were set in the 1960s. In “Ringolevio,” the first section of “Crook Manifesto,” we find Ray in 1971, making good. His Harlem furniture store, once a wonderland of sleek mid-century modern design now adapting to ’70s earth tones, has done well enough for him to buy the building it’s in and the one next door. He and Elizabeth have also bought a townhouse in Strivers’ Row, the neighborhood she grew up in, turning the tables (to Ray’s satisfaction) on her snobby parents, who had to downsize after economic reversals in “Harlem Shuffle.”

Carney has intentionally put his shady side hustles behind him and ghosted most of his criminal pals. But his daughter, May, is 15 years old and a fierce fangirl of the Jackson 5. She’s a precociously political kid, reading the newspapers to follow the skirmishes between the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army, but she’s also papering her bedroom walls with Jackson 5 Tiger Beat covers.

Tickets, of course, are impossible to get, but Ray’s fatherhood cred is on the line. So he begins tapping some of his old associates and finally resorts to the crookedest of crooks: a white cop named Munson.

Munson agrees to help him, but he needs a favor in return. That plunges Ray into a ‘70s Harlem version of “Inferno” with Munson as Virgil, if Dante’s guide had been a corrupt, greedy, violent, racist cop instead of an ancient Greek poet. Within a few hours, Ray is carrying a bagful of stolen diamonds, driving a getaway car and witnessing a murder.

In “Harlem Shuffle,” a tour with Munson opened Ray’s eyes to a secret city within the New York he knew. This time around, New York is a city in steep decline, and the tour is a short course in the ruination wrought by urban renewal and rabid development.

The book’s second section, “Nefertiti T.N.T.,” takes place in 1973. Carney steps to the side as his memorable former mentor Pepper takes the spotlight. Pepper was one of Big Mike’s associates, a massive, glowering, seemingly indestructible man with a deep knowledge of Harlem’s residents.

He comes back into Ray’s life when an audacious young filmmaker named Zippo Flood arranges to use Carney’s Furniture as a set to film scenes for his Blaxploitation movie “Nefertiti T.N.T.” After some of the film equipment is heisted from trucks outside, Zippo hires Pepper to be on set and look menacing. As Carney says when he sees him, “You’re getting paid to be yourself. … Not bad.”

Pepper’s job gets more complicated when Lucinda Cole, who plays the movie’s sexy, butt-kicking title character, disappears. Pepper is tasked with finding her and goes to a stand-up performance by the movie’s other star, an edgy comic named Roscoe Pope, who shares much more than initials with Richard Pryor.

Lucinda’s trail will lead to some scary places, but along the way we learn that Pepper is something of a philosopher under the muscle. Having fought in World War II, he has his own perspective on the criminals he works with: “A man has a hierarchy of crime, of what is morally acceptable and what is not, a crook manifesto, and those who subscribe to lesser codes are cockroaches. Are nothing.”

The third section, “The Finishers,” set in 1976, teams Ray and Pepper in a quest. It’s the year of the U.S. bicentennial, and preparations for that celebration are inescapable, although Ray has his own private slogan for the event: “Two hundred years of getting away with it!”

Despite all the red-white-and-blue bunting, New York is still decaying. One aspect of its decline is a plague of thousands of building fires that take down whole neighborhoods, some due to neglect but many the work of arsonists.

Ray doesn’t think about them much until a fire in an empty building nearby injures an 11-year-old named Albert Ruiz, who lives with his mother and sisters in an apartment above Carney’s Furniture. Albert and his friends had been playing in the abandoned tenement, and he happened to be there when an arsonist’s firebomb went off.

Carney’s son, John, is just a few years older than Albert. Ray knows his desire to find out who set the fire is ironic — Big Mike was a criminal “generalist,” but he “came home reeking of kerosene on occasion.” But he needs to do it.

So Ray enlists Pepper’s help, especially his institutional knowledge of Harlem criminals. Elizabeth and May are busy campaigning for Alexander Oakes, who’s running for borough president. He’s a district attorney and an old friend of Elizabeth’s, and she admires his idealism. Both of those quests will take shocking turns.

Throughout “Crook Manifesto,” Whitehead’s deft plotting and skill at bringing characters to life shine. The novel is so vibrant with details of daily life, from pop culture to politics, in the 1970s that it’s startling to remember he wasn’t born until 1969. He continues to be one of our most extraordinary storytellers and observers of the complexities of race in America.

And, sentence to sentence, his writing is simply gorgeous, like this description of a meal at a restaurant where Pepper is a regular customer: “A refreshing scorpion spike of heat lay hidden in the collards, and the mac and cheese was a symphony of competing textures, but the chicken was divine, fried in the very skillet of heaven.”

Delicious.

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©2023 Tampa Bay Times. Visit tampabay.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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