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In 'Harlem Shuffle,' Colson Whitehead Departs From Heavy Themes

NOEL KING, HOST:

Colson Whitehead's last two books won Pulitzer Prizes. "The Underground Railroad" was about slavery and escape. "The Nickel Boys" was about a reform school in Florida where boys were brutalized. So it's possible to forget that Colson Whitehead can be very funny. His new book, "Harlem Shuffle," is the story of Ray Carney, a furniture salesman trying to walk the straight and narrow in early '60s New York. But Ray is drawn by family, friends, circumstance and his own ambition into some crooked scenarios, including a heist at the most glamorous hotel in Harlem. Colson Whitehead told me this departure from very heavy themes was kind of a relief.

COLSON WHITEHEAD: I like to be able to make my weird jokes, and sometimes the subject matter allows me to do that. "The Underground Railroad" and "Nickel Boys" didn't really have room for some of my strange humor sometimes. And so the crime genre, the heist novel allowed me to exercise that muscle once again.

KING: Is it different in some way, better in some way, emotionally healthier in some way to write a book with less heavy themes? Or does that not really play into it?

WHITEHEAD: It does. I mean, you know, it ends up playing out. I usually do a lighter book and then a heavier book. And in the case of the last two novels, I was, you know, delving deep into institutional racism, Jim Crow. And so by the end of "The Nickel Boys," once I was bringing my characters to their tragic end, I was very depleted and very weary and definitely ready to do something lighter. And I knew immediately that the story of Ray Carney was going to allow me to live in a different space psychologically when I wrote the book and also that his world would be much different than the world of Cora in "The Underground Railroad" and Elwood and Turner in "The Nickel Boys."

KING: Let's talk about his world, which is the Harlem of the late 1950s and 1960s. You grew up in New York, but not in Harlem proper as I understand it.

WHITEHEAD: All over - you know, my first - the first place I lived was 139th and Riverside. And so my earliest memories of our - of a very sort of gritty, dirty 1970s Harlem on Broadway. You know, going back to the neighborhood now to write the book, I ended up going back to my old places I dimly remembered and then rediscovering different parts of Harlem I hadn't been to in a long time.

KING: The writing is vivid. It's always moving. Something's always popping. Something's always snapping. Why did you get interested in this particular, say, five to 10 years that the book covers?

WHITEHEAD: I'm always making, you know, these random decisions, and then I have to make them real in the story. So I have to put that work in. And in this case, I knew I wanted to write a heist book. I love heist movies, particularly, you know, the ones from the '50s and '60s and '70s. And so I tried to think of a big moment in New York history that my heisters could exploit for their purposes - so the race riots of the - of 1964. So '64 became the year, and then everything came from that. And it isn't my Harlem. But strangely, it is my parents' Harlem because they were newlyweds in Harlem at that time, raising kids about the same age as Carney - Ray Carney and his wife.

And so I would do all this research and go to the library and find the Hotel Theresa, this place, that nightclub. And then I would tell my mother. And she'd say, oh, yeah, I went to that Chock Full o'Nuts in the Hotel Theresa every day because I worked around the corner. You know, two months later, I was like, oh, Blumstein's blah, blah, blah. And she said, oh, yeah, your dad worked at Blumstein's, like Carney does, you know, for two summers. And so I should have just been asking her the whole time. It didn't occur to me till I was halfway through the book that I could use her as a resource.

KING: How did you do your research? Did you wander around? Do you use the library archives? How does this work?

WHITEHEAD: Yeah. I mean, I definitely (laughter) like to do as much as I can from home because I'm, you know, sort of lazy. But also, I love walking around New York City. So I would do location scouting and say - oh, is that Carney's - where Carney grew up? Is that where he works? - and just, you know, find different buildings and then double-check with Google that they were actually there in 1959 and et cetera.

KING: The main character, Ray Carney, is a man of two faces, like many of us. He's a businessman. He's proud that he has a college degree. And yet, he dips in and out of the seedy parts of New York in the course of his work life. And the eternal question running through this book is sort of, is Ray crooked, or is he straight and to what degree? And that's something that he asks himself over time. Where do you come down on Ray Carney? Who is this man?

WHITEHEAD: Oh. I mean, he's definitely divided. You know, I think, on the one hand, he does want to be this upstanding member of the middle class, have his own business, have a nice family. But there is this crooked side of him. His father was a petty thief in Harlem, and that's what he's seen growing up, the crooked side of life. And while he's pulled himself up by his bootstraps, there is this call of the street. And, you know, part of the book is describing his rejection and an embrace of his criminal side. It started off as a heist book, but then became really a character study of Ray Carney over time as he grapples, accepts, rejects, you know, his private nature.

KING: And so really interestingly, one of the ways that the world opens up and becomes universal is this is a book about New York, and you are writing about real estate. And that is an eternal struggle in New York - where you live, where you want to live, where you know you'll never be able to live. Can you talk a little bit about how real estate motivates the characters in this book?

WHITEHEAD: Yeah. I mean, I would not call this book autobiographical, but I'm definitely in there in Carney's aspirational love for real estate. You know, he believes that if he can just get to the next better apartment, his luck will change. He has a kid; now we need a two-bedroom. Another kid on the way - a three-bedroom that's overlooking the park on this nice block, everything will change. And of course, at least in my life, I've moved about 20-something times. And whenever I get to that new apartment, that first night, I'm like, oh, there are no closets.

KING: (Laughter).

WHITEHEAD: And the subway is really close. I'm not sure why I didn't hear it when I was going on the walk-through. You know, and that's part of capitalism. That's part of living in a consumer society. If you can just get the next thing, everything will work. And of course, it doesn't because we're just human beings. And so I feel like in the last two books, institutional racism was sort of like the big system that defined people's lives. And this being a New York novel, it's real estate and winds (ph) - to be on a better block with a little more light and a little more room.

KING: Colson Whitehead - his new book is called "Harlem Shuffle." Thank you so much for being with us. This was really fun.

WHITEHEAD: No, thank you. Fun for me, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON AND JOHN COLTRANE'S "TAKE THE COLTRANE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.