A Novel Concept

Colson Whitehead ‘Crook’ Book Deserves a Look

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By Michael Malone

Colson Whitehead takes us back to Harlem in the ‘70s with “Crook Manifesto,” which came out last week.

There are three parts to the novel, each roughly 100 pages. The main character is Ray Carney, who owns a furniture shop in Harlem and has long been a fence for stolen stuff in the neighborhood. Carney plans to go legit, but his daughter desperately wants Jackson 5 tickets, which are mighty hard to come by.

So he dips back into the shady stuff.

The first part is called “Ringolevio.” Set in 1971, it sees Carney reconnect with a slippery detective who’s known as a fixer in the police department and on the street, the guy who gets you out of a pickle or scores Jackson 5 tickets when they are nowhere to be found.

Of course, the fixer demands a hefty price for his services.

The second part, set in 1973, is called “Nefertiti T.N.T.” and introduces us to Pepper, a violent odd-jobs guy. A blaxploitation movie is being shot in Harlem by a filmmaker named Zippo, his moniker a nod to his earlier role in torching buildings. Pepper handles street-level security for the film people, ranging from flashy Hollywood types to rough-and-tumble New Yorkers.

The third part, set in 1976, is called “The Finishers” and looks at the extraordinary number of buildings in Harlem that are burning down. When a blaze injures a young resident in a building Carney owns, he taps Pepper to find out who set it off.

New York City was a shoddy place in the ‘70s, and Harlem was shoddier still. Garbage is all over the streets in “Crook Manifesto.” As the title indicates, crime is ubiquitous as well, and the Black Liberation Army and NYPD are engaged in a full-blown battle.

“You knew the city was going to hell if the Upper East Side was starting to look like crap, too,” Whitehead writes.

Whitehead does a masterful job of placing the reader on the steps of a building in 1970s Harlem, a front-row seat for the madness taking place. At one point in “The Finishers,” Carney makes a rare venture out of Harlem, and is having a drink at the Subway Inn on Lexington Avenue. He notes, with disdain, the slim sidewalks parallel to Lex.

“If you’re an avenue, act like an avenue,” Carney says. “Not a side street.”

Carney also had a starring role in the Whitehead novel “Harlem Shuffle,” which came out in 2021 and is set a decade before the new book. He’s a compelling character – trying to do the right thing, working hard to attain the American dream, but lured into the trap of dodgy dealings, where the dollars come faster and harder than what a furniture store produces.

One learns a bit about furniture while reading the novel. When Carney gets home late one night, his wife has fallen asleep watching Johnny Carson.

“Downstairs he tucked a blanket around Elizabeth rather than wake her,” Whitehead writes. “She didn’t care for the latest craze for low sofas – or much of the current offerings in Carney’s showroom, to be honest – so they held on to the three-year-old Argent, birch with champagne finish.”

Whitehead is a superstar, his name larger than the title on the book’s cover. He’s 53 and has 11 books to his name, with two of them, “The Nickel Boys” and “The Underground Railroad,” winning Pulitzers. He’s been a recipient of both the Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships, the latter known as the Genius Grant.

“Crook Manifesto” has a 4.07 rating on Good Reads, out of 5, with 470 ratings at press time. The Guardian called it “a dazzling sequel” to “Harlem Shuffle.” Writing in The New York Times, crime novelist Walter Mosley used the d-word as well: “a dazzling treatise, a glorious and intricate anatomy of the heist, the con and the slow game.”

The Atlantic, for its part, was less enthused. Its review said Whitehead “loses the plot,” feeling the ‘Nefertiti’ story downplayed Carney’s role in the novel and took away from the prevailing plot. The reviewer did add, “Whitehead continues to write some of the best sentences in the business.”

I also wished for a wee bit more common ground between the three stories, and more of a consistent through-line. There are an awful lot of gangsters to keep straight, from mob bosses to penny-ante thugs, and at times I felt like I would’ve been more invested in a story with fewer players.

But I liked hanging with Carney, and wholeheartedly enjoyed “Crook Manifesto.” Whitehead does indeed write great sentences – insightful, heartfelt and funny. He writes this about Carney riding the subway past the building he and his wife once lived in, in less prosperous times.

“Elizabeth never complained about their first apartment on 127th Street. When a train screeched into the station across the way, she paused and allowed it to pass before she resumed speaking, a portrait of regal poise. ‘Like Queen Elizabeth waiting for a fart to clear,’ Carney teased one time, and from then on she arched an eyebrow for effect, a hint of disdain that made her twice as elegant.”

Journalist Michael Malone lives in Hawthorne with his wife and two children. 

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