Crook Manifesto by Colson Whitehead

In Crook Manifesto, the always excellent Colson Whitehead takes us back to the world he devised in his previous novel, Harlem Shuffle. Ray Carney still has his Harlem furniture store. Becoming more prosperous, he and his family have settled into an apartment on the coveted Strivers’ Row. We’re in the 1970s, where “the flamboyant quotient in Harlem” is high, filled with all sorts of “groovy plumage.”

But the New York of the 1970s is also one of decline, with “the apprehension that things were not as they had been and it would be a long time before they were right again.” In the decade of America’s Bicentennial, this current volatility seems fitting to Carney, where America is both “melting pot and powder keg.” And to Carney, the powder keg is besting any harmonious melting together. When it comes time for him to conjure up his Bicentennial furniture ad for the newspaper, he can’t think of anything jingoistic. He can think only of such cutting things as “200 years but it feels like more–Ask the Indians. This July 4th, Salute Truth, Justice & 3-Position Adjustable Recliners.”

Still, even though Carney tends to “weave private dread into the universal condition,” life is pretty good. He’s no longer a part of the secondary economy, where he helped fence (move) stolen goods. His underworld contacts have stepped back into the shadows, leaving Ray Carney to live the straight-and-narrow life.

That is until his teenage daughter wants tickets to see the Jackson 5 at Madison Square Garden. As any father will tell you, just about anything will be done to avoid disappointing your daughter. So as the concert date approaches, Carney does what he has to do to score tickets to the sold-out show: He steps back into the shadows.

Carney contacts Munson, a white cop who shakes down the neighborhood crooks. He’s a crook with a badge, a streetwise tough from Hell’s Kitchen who long ago realized he could work both sides of the law. He’ll get Carney those tickets, but Carney must go on a ride with him. And what a wild ride it is.

It’s an open question whether Carney was looking for an excuse to re-enter the underworld. Either way, he quickly realizes he’s made a big mistake. “Slip once and everybody is glad to help you slip hard. Crooked stays crooked and bent hates straight.” Munson’s world is collapsing, so he enlists Carney to act as wheelman on one final run of extortions.

Whitehead demonstrates why he’s won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, twice. He could be describing anything and I’m pretty sure I would be regaled. During moments of grand intensity, there’s still some observational levity that underscores the absurdity of what’s transpiring. For example, there’s the old-timer crook who forms perfectly articulated sentences even with an active cigarette affixed in his mouth. “Shakespeare monologues couldn’t budge it.” Soon after this thought, someone is shot three times. And on it goes.

There are quite a few recurring characters from Harlem Shuffle (such as Munson), most notably Pepper, an aging bruiser whose entire adult life has been one heist after another. (Note: Crook Manifesto can be read as a stand-alone novel.) When a blaxploitation shoot is set to be filmed in the neighborhood, Carney sees to it that Pepper works its security. To the taciturn Pepper, “filmmaking was a heist, same animal.” In fact, Pepper sees most human activity through a criminal’s lens. To wit: The men on the street signs didn’t get there “by being decent, that’s for damn sure.”

Whitehead is known for his meticulous research to set a scene. Pick any era, allow Whitehead some time to research it, and he’ll pen a story that will place you right in that period. In 1970s New York City, arson was ubiquitous. The reasons for it are varied, but we already know the drill: debilitated buildings being burned not only for insurance payouts but also for kickbacks to those who will choose just who in fact gets to rebuild them. It was common enough for some tenants to sleep with their shoes on. Then there were the willing arsonists, or “firebugs”—blokes who just wanted to see the world burn.

Pepper can be violent, but the crime he sees now goes beyond the pale. In addition to the wildness of repeated arsons, there’s such things as the mother of four who’s stabbed over a few dollars and a pastrami sandwich, and the Juilliard student who’s pushed onto the subway tracks. To Pepper, “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.”

Nonetheless, both Carney and Pepper know that in a “city like this, it behooves you to embrace the… contradictions.” And, really, it’s not as though there was some “good old days of crime” epoch, even though it often feels like it, a wanting for it to be so. Take Alexander Oakes, a rising politician and a childhood friend of Carney’s wife, Elizabeth. Both Alexander and Elizabeth come from the monied Harlem community, with Alexander acting as an interlocutor between the old and new power structures. To Elizabeth’s father, Alexander “would have been his son-in-law if the world made any kind of sense, if Elizabeth had any sense.” Without giving anything away, Carney and Pepper learn how this other set operates, and, once again, it gets fierce.

The world—as it does—changes fast for Carney. His kids are growing, doing their own thing, and on their way to leaving. His wife has her own busy career. Other than an occasional meet-up with Pepper and a few others, he’s essentially a loner, with an uneasy foot in both the crooked and straight worlds. Things come back hard on Carney, leaving him somewhat bewildered and struggling with what he should be thinking about. He’s like the city where he lives. “The city is being tested. It was always being tested and emerging on the other side in a newer, stronger version for having been laid low.”

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Reviewed by Jason Sullivan