Colson Whitehead’s elevated status in American letters derives largely from The Underground Railroad (2016) and The Nickel Boys (2019), two acclaimed and complementary novels that explored slavery and its afterlives in US institutions. Earlier this year, awarding the author a National Humanities Medal, Joe Biden referred to Whitehead’s unique record as the only writer to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for back-to-back works. “Pretty good, man,” observed the octogenarian preparing to seek a second term as president: “I’m kind of hoping to go back-to-back myself.”
With Crook Manifesto, Whitehead goes back-to-back in a different way. For the first time, he has written a sequel – the second instalment, indeed, of a planned trilogy. Harlem Shuffle (2021), set at the turn of the 1960s, introduced the character of Ray Carney, a Harlem furniture salesman torn between upward mobility – his struggle to escape his father’s criminal shadow and acquire an address in the moneyed district of Strivers’ Row – and the forces pulling him towards the underworld. Not the least of these is Carney’s own “crooked” inclinations: Ray’s activities as a “fence” (a mover of stolen goods) bring him no little satisfaction, and the divide between striver and crook – literalised in the contrasting pressures of his wife Elizabeth’s upstanding family and his dubious cousin Freddie – is central to his personality.
Crook Manifesto picks up the story in the early 1970s with Carney settled in respectability, having left his illegal exploits behind. Meanwhile, the city is changing around him – new crime bosses, lovingly christened with names like Notch Walker and Church Wiley, have arrived on the scene, buildings are burnt down and remade, and the next generation is into Blaxploitation films, stand-up comedy, and pop music (the plot is activated by Carney’s need to procure Jackson 5 tickets for his daughter). With much of the narrative scaffolding built, Whitehead can hit the ground running here, and Carney is rapidly embroiled in a caper that escalates into something more deadly. Like its predecessor, Crook Manifesto is divided into three loosely related episodes that dissect the corruption of different spheres of New York society. Carney’s muscular and more straightforwardly illicit associate Pepper, who functions as the protagonist’s buddy and enforcer, comes to play a more sustained role here, and their unconventional and comic relationship comes to power the book’s incendiary logic.
Whitehead has always hopped from genre to genre – zombie fiction, slave narratives, coming-of-age novels – and it’s easy to see why he has chosen to spend more time in the crime fiction mode. The genre’s traits and preoccupations dovetail neatly with his own: the ironic and detached style, the obsession with institutions and hidden power relations, and the subtle gradations of social class. Whitehead is fascinated by the restless movements of capital and the frenetic competition it generates – his nonfiction book about poker is titled The Noble Hustle – and the novel expertly portrays what it describes as “churn” as the ever-changing face of Carney’s furniture showroom parallels the constant upheaval of the city outside.
Whitehead knows and loves this world, and you feel that he could write endlessly about this damaged city and its hungry men (and it is mostly men, despite Elizabeth’s more central role here). The novels do raise the question, though, of whether Whitehead is, after the intense subject matter and formal experimentation of his previous decade, settling into a more comfortable phase. His best novels make a point of subverting (or in his own words, “deforming”) genre conventions; here, it sometimes feels as if Whitehead is more straightforwardly “doing” crime fiction. No bad thing, but the level of ambition in his best work – the bold strokes of formal invention in genre and plot – sometimes seems absent.
There is a counterpoint, though. The expanded canvas of two novels allows for a more extended portrait of a neighbourhood whose growth pains come to stand for broader postwar political currents. Step back, and The Nickel Boys starts to seem like the beginning of a fictional project charting Black America’s journey through the Civil Rights era and beyond. The Harlem depicted here is a place of new freedoms and self-assertion as well as the arena for new forms of old oppressions, and its inhabitants are divided on whether “reform [or] revolution” is the best response. In a rigged game, how to play: try to work from within or burn it all down? The novels share an ambiguous scepticism towards both options, and Carney’s answer tends to be pragmatic: keep your head down, and keep hustling.