“Harlem Shuffle” by Colson Whitehead
The Novel, The Rolling Stones Song, The Dance and More
The first thought blasting through my memory banks as I noted the publication of Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle was the Rolling Stones’ eponymous song from 1986’s “Dirty Work.” It’s a favorite of mine. I love the way its R&B motifs ripple and flow. The official video on YouTube is worth watching, not just for Mick’s sensual, sexy dancing with the alluring Black femme fatale, nor for the scatological cats animation, but for the way it represents the plot progression in Whitehead’s novel.
Now, that raises the question: was the author familiar with the song, either in its Rolling Stones version from the ‘80s, or perhaps from the 1953 original by Bob and Earl?
Looking even more deeply, what exactly is the Harlem Shuffle? Turns out it’s a real dance move. The Wikipedia entry reads:
“The Harlem Shuffle is a dance maneuver that takes various forms. One form is as a complete line dance, consisting of approximately 25 steps. Other forms may include a simplified two-step followed by a shoulder-brushing motion with the back of the opposite hand.
“In some respects, the maneuver is a homage to the vibrant dance culture that permeated dance clubs of the Harlem area during the Harlem renaissance. Such gestures became increasingly common from the 1980s onwards, as greater attempts were made to properly credit the influence of African-American artists and musicians on popular culture.”
I surmise Whitehead was indeed familiar with the dance step (and so was Jagger, evidenced by his dancing with the lovely young woman in the video). IMO the song’s slow, sensual groove is profoundly, intentionally, deeply woven into the author’s storytelling progression.
In short, Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle is the literary representation of the song “Harlem Shuffle.” Probably the Stones version.
So I wish I’d done this research prior to starting the book, for it would have helped me move to the left, and then move to the right, with the storytelling. I would have been somewhat less concerned with the novel’s not following the more commonly expected narrative arc, exemplified by rising action, climax, falling action.
Colson Whitehead is a superb writer. This is not my first time turning pages in his novels, and although I would not put this one at the top of my Whitehead list (that spot continues to be held by The Underground Railroad), it was still an entertaining read. That said, as far as exploring the New York/Harlem Black experience, I found Ann Petry’s 1946 novel, The Street, to be a far more engaging work (which I reviewed here).
Harlem Shuffle is set in the 1960s, but of course was written in our contemporary times. What disappoints and often shocks is how little the issue of how Blacks are regarded in America has changed. In Whitehead’s novel, barely at all. Of course it’s fiction and he can tell the story however he wishes, but it’s true that an enormous disparity still exists between white life and Black life.
I found many, many instances of Whitehead’s finely wrought thought and prose:
“The front room had smelled rank from cigarette, and cigar smoke in the glory days, and from the cheap beer and rotgut soaked into the floorboards, but the stench now was another register of foul.” (p . 82)
Another: “His father, a textiles merchant back in the old country (Romania? Hungary?), preferred the dorvay, that midnight pasture, for squaring his accounts. ‘We’ve forgotten now, but until the advent of the lightbulb, it was common to sleep in two shifts,’ Simonov said.” (p. 135)
Another disparity concerns literary opinion. If you read the “editorial” reviews, you’ll see nothing but heaps of praise. But slip down into reader reviews and you’ll get more frank, often critical appraisals. Some are off the mark: as mentioned, one has to understand that Whitehead was purposefully writing in a non-traditional style all his own: the book ends pretty much on the same note (sic) as it began. Just like the song. The reader is left to interpret whatever distinctive aspects were of most interest or appeal without benefit of the author’s obvious point of view or guidance.
That’s fair. What I felt was not fair or in any way an appropriate appraisal in the Amazon reviews was from one who calls self “Ringer” and whose comments are entitled “Slumming.” It’s a personal attack on the author, hardly relevant to the fictional storytelling. I reported “Slumming” as abuse, because it is, in more ways than one.