A seer and a survivor
BOOKS | Novel contemplates virtue in a world of treachery
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The way I see it, there are two kinds of crime novels. The first, epitomized by, for example, Agatha Christie, are puzzle novels in which the setup and solution are the essence of the book. Without the puzzle, the detective isn’t necessary. Certainly the best examples go beyond the clues and offer something fundamental about human existence—or at least present a fully formed detective whose personality makes the story truly entertaining. But ultimately such novels are built on the principle that a puzzle needs solving.
The second type is the atmospheric novel, in which the book’s tone—and sense of place—are paramount. Think here of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep or James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss, both of which capture the energy, the soul, of the world their characters inhabit. They’re books about what it’s like to be in a particular place at a particular time, bouncing off slithery characters with slippery motives.
Colson Whitehead’s new novel, Crook Manifesto (Doubleday 2023), and its predecessor Harlem Shuffle (the first two books in what will be a trilogy) fit snugly into this second type.
Together, they chronicle the life and times of criminal-turned-furniture salesman Ray Carney as he attempts to make a life for himself outside of Harlem’s midcentury underworld. It’s tough, though, because, while he’s turning Carney’s Furniture into the kind of up-and-up business that can provide for his wife and children—and of which they can be proud—he’s also made a name for himself as a street-wise ally to a variety of shady figures.
Naturally, the books begin by dragging our protagonist into some new scheme or setup. In the case of Crook Manifesto, Carney turns to an old friend named Munson in search of Jackson 5 tickets for his daughter. (It’s 1971, mind you.) Problem is, Munson is corrupt as they come, and Carney finds himself caught ever deeper in the very game he’s looking to escape.
It’s a familiar setup for crime fiction, archetypal even, but Crook Manifesto turns into something far richer than the plot summary suggests.
The city, the story tells us, is “going down the toilet.” There are “whole stretches of the city where it pretended to be sane and civilized … and places where that pretense broke down.” Carney attributes this to an illness at the city’s core, a sickness passed down through the sins of the fathers: “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 … from what he understood about human beings, today’s messes and cruelties were the latest versions of the old ones. Same flaws, different face. All of it passed down.”
Given his perspective on all this, Ray Carney stands out in modern American fiction. He’s downtrodden and charming enough to gain the reader’s sympathy yet clever enough to survive a life of crime. He’s a family man whose own father put him on the path he wants to leave. Ultimately, he is a philosopher with real ideas about the way the world ought to be and a lot of regret about the way it actually is. He’s a seer and a survivor, and through him Crook Manifesto becomes a book that asks whether virtue is possible in a world defined by treachery.
At one point, immediately preceding a violent shootout, Carney compares God to a DJ who has “left the board to have a cigarette on the roof, left them to interpret and endure his choices … set it up, roll the spools, let it happen.” In a way, who can blame him for this bit of disillusionment? After all, he points out, the “transit authority maintenance crews beat back the graffiti, hosing it off so there’d be room for the next day’s messages and handles, but the names of the crooked city fathers—the slavers, money pimps, and fat cats—would never be washed away. They were indelible.”
Does Whitehead offer a solution to this spiritual problem it reveals? Well, Crook Manifesto isn’t the kind of novel that dabbles in puzzles. But it’s certainly a rich text for the contemplations that it offers.
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