CROOK MANIFESTO, by Colson Whitehead
Returning to the world of his novel “Harlem Shuffle,” Colson Whitehead’s “Crook Manifesto” is a dazzling treatise, a glorious and intricate anatomy of the heist, the con and the slow game. There’s an element of crime here, certainly, but as in Whitehead’s previous books, genre isn’t the point. Here he uses the crime novel as a lens to investigate the mechanics of a singular neighborhood at a particular tipping point in time. He has it right: the music, the energy, the painful calculus of loss. Structured into three time periods — 1971, 1973 and finally the year of America’s bicentennial celebration, 1976 — “Crook Manifesto” gleefully detonates its satire upon this world while getting to the heart of the place and its people.
This is a story of survival without redemption, where the next generation loses some of the well-honed instincts that have built this world. Whitehead’s hero, the furniture salesman and opportunistic small-time criminal Ray Carney, is older than he was when we last met. He has retreated from his practice of working in the “secondary economy.” But outside his successful furniture business’s showroom window, Harlem is stirring with the unease of change and oppression.
The presence of the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army has set a new edge to the age-old battle between the neighborhood and the white policemen riding roughshod down its streets. From behind his store’s plate-glass window Carney takes it all in: the thump of car engines, the shouts and taunts, the stand-downs of Black men being pushed against walls and searched by white police officers, the news headlines of police officers killed. Sirens cut through conversations; people traverse the powerful river of the sounds and smells that are Harlem.
Carney wants to stay out of trouble, but his daughter, who feels lost to him through teenage angst, wants tickets to see the Jackson 5, a show sold out long ago. Whitehead uses that bittersweet pull of parental loss to plunge into a comedic — and deadly — journey. From here Carney revisits and rekindles connections he once had and paid dearly to leave behind. He blunders through criminals’ apartments, carries hot jewels in his briefcase and is forced to rob a poker game.
Carney is resigned and observant, a participant and a hostage, as he embarks on a nightmarish shotgun ride across New York City. His navigator and terrorizer on the journey is a corrupt white cop who won’t stop talking about ringolevio, the street game that Carney and his friends used to play in Harlem and the cop played in his own childhood neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen. The more the cop talks, the more Carney tries to figure a way out, an exit. He becomes an unwilling confessor and witness to an old truth: No one escapes. It sets up a cascading series of tragedies, through “Don Quixote”-like adventures, to set the scales right, to create a new kind of version of who he is, what Harlem is.
Whitehead bends language. He makes sinuous the sounds of a city and its denizens pushing against the boundaries. He can be mordantly funny, with old-time enforcers observing the precision of past brutalities while the language in Carney’s head is all about the ad he needs to draft — despite the growing number of bodies and corruptions he faces — for the July 4 bicentennial, and what that holiday really signifies in his Harlem and for his customers in search of their next sofa. At other times, Whitehead gives his characters the quiet and room to issue forth the sound of such deep regret and resignation: of being trapped, of all the odds stacked against them, even from within.
“It was like he was a kid again, just starting to understand the shape of his sadness,” one character thinks as he dutifully hunts for the turpentine he will use to start an illicit fire. “Out of step even then, lost among the tall buildings.”
Whitehead’s men struggle with connections, they carry their heartaches and lost loves close to the chest. They have names, and nicknames gained from what can only be called traumatic past experiences: Zippo, Corky. They value loyalty and yet have little trust. They divide the streets, the illegal businesses, dubious accounting and the skill sets (arson, safecracking, protection), and then the power shifts when the players disperse and change sides. Caught up in their specialties, they run the rackets like the corrupt corporations that run America.
Enter the artist and the unaffiliated arsonist, “wild-eyed men” from Whitehead’s “misfit census” who share a passion for something ineffable: conjuring something wholly new. For one it is a fabulist movie in a dark theater — a blaxploitation film shot in Harlem, “Nefertiti T.N.T.,” starring an actress from a New Jersey suburb with a bio that says otherwise. For the secular arsonist, it is the rush of the sound of fire catching the drapes, the saved-for couch or the empty raw bones of an abandoned building. We all have our dreams.
But for Carney, the fires become an inflection point he doesn’t understand, a push to action that seems, even to him, out of character:
“He was here tonight because a boy he didn’t know was caught in a fire, and a spark had caught Carney’s sleeve. To avenge — who? The boy? To punish bad men? Which ones — there were too many to count. The city was burning. It was burning not because of sick men with matches and cans of gas but because the city itself was sick, waiting for fire, begging for it. Every night you heard the sirens. Pierce blamed years of misguided policy, but Carney rejected that narrow diagnosis: From what he understood about human beings, today’s messes and cruelties were the latest version of the old ones. Same flaws, different face. All of it passed down.”
A single act that defies all of his well-honed instincts and street training reveals Harlem to Carney in all the ways he has come to know it in its parts — the training from his father, his in-laws’ ambitions, his inability to plant his feet firmly in this place he has called home. When the novel comes to its end there is a grace note for Carney, maybe not that island retreat his dreaded white cop fixer had in mind, but a different kind of peace we can all aspire to: to survive our own decisions and dreams, to be loved, to belong to a place we love.
Walter Mosley’s most recent novel is “Every Man a King.”
CROOK MANIFESTO | By Colson Whitehead | 319 pp. | Doubleday | $29