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Mean Streets

Colson Whitehead’s Ode to 1970s New York

In “Crook Manifesto,” everything is a racket—even history.

The historical novel, once considered the height of kitsch—Henry James described it as “condemned … to a fatal cheapness”—has staged a remarkable comeback over the course of the last several decades. In his forthcoming study Writing Backwards: Historical Fiction and the Reshaping of the American Canon, the literary scholar Alexander Manshel argues that the historical novel has steadily emerged as the single most prestigious genre of contemporary literature in the twenty-first century. He observes that nearly three-quarters of all novels short-listed for major American prizes since 2000 have been historical fiction, and that historical novels account for 70 percent of those most frequently assigned in universities. Recent, lavishly acclaimed historical novels by Yiyun Li, Olga Tokarczuk, Hernan Diaz, Hilary Mantel, and Elena Ferrante bear out the thesis. “Literary fiction has never been more historical—nor historical fiction more literary—than it has been over the last forty years,” Manshel concludes.

One of the major figures in the ascent of historical fiction to its current place of eminence in twenty-first-century literary culture has been Colson Whitehead. Though he’s written across a broad range of genres, from bildungsroman to zombie novel, Whitehead is above all a writer of historical fiction. From the beginning of his long, varied career, he’s been drawn to elaborately detailed period settings, albeit often distorted or ambiguous ones, like the indeterminate mid-century New York of his first novel, The Intuitionist, or ones inflected with anachronistic or fantastic elements, as in the bizarro antebellum South of The Underground Railroad. Of Whitehead’s nine novels to date, only one—2006’s surreal satire Apex Hides the Hurt—has been fully set in anything like the present.

Crook Manifesto
by Colson Whitehead
Doubleday, 336 pp., $29.00

Crook Manifesto, Whitehead’s latest, is a historical novel in a more playful vein than previous works like The Underground Railroad or The Nickel Boys, which dealt with slavery and institutionalized child abuse, respectively. Spanning the years 1971 to 1976, it’s the second volume in the “Harlem trilogy,” a suite of hard-boiled detective stories populated by all manner of toughs, hoods, and operators. (The first volume, Harlem Shuffle, began in 1959 and ended in 1964; a third, currently underway, will presumably bring us into the 1980s and perhaps beyond.) From “the character of light on 125th Street” in the summertime to the graffiti that “exploded on the train cars in balloon letters and sharp-angled glyphs,” Crook Manifesto is filled with precisely observed visual impressions of New York City—evocative writing suffused with nostalgia for the gritty New York of the ’70s (which is also the New York of Whitehead’s childhood: He was born in Manhattan in 1969).

And yet something about Crook Manifesto, expertly executed as it is, suggests a certain ennui at the heart of the historical novelist’s enterprise. Whitehead’s characters are buffeted by history—never for more than a paragraph does the book let you forget that it’s set in the ’70s—but they seem exhausted and a little bored by it: It impinges on their consciousness as an annoyance, an irritant. “History,” James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus famously put it, “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” I don’t think Whitehead’s characters would go that far. But it may be a nuisance they’re trying to avoid.

Who is Ray Carney, anyway? First introduced in Harlem Shuffle, Ray is the son of a small-time gangster named Big Mike Carney, and though he’s ambivalent about his criminal patrimony, he has himself put in time as a fence, handling stolen goods for a variety of disreputable customers. Now the owner of a successful furniture business on 125th Street, Ray has moved up in the world: A fully paid-up member of the Black bourgeoisie, he lives with his wife and kids on Strivers’ Row, the most dignified address in Harlem. He has ostensibly “joined the good and decent folk, pulling the drapes tight when shots rang out down the street and tsking at the turf battles and bloody rumbles in the morning paper.” But he still keeps tabs on the underworld, and it doesn’t take much for him to slip back into his old crooked milieu.

Ray is a little man living on the margins of big events, for the most part preoccupied with his private dramas but occasionally looking up to realize that the world around him is in convulsions. He’s a paragon of what the literary theorist Georg Lukács, in his 1937 study The Historical Novel, called “the mediocre hero.” Thinking of the protagonists of Sir Walter Scott’s novels, who were beset by great events but were never world-historical actors themselves, Lukács proposed that the hero of a classical historical novel “generally possesses a certain, though never outstanding, degree of practical intelligence, a certain moral fortitude and decency which even rises to a capacity for self-sacrifice, but which never grows into a sweeping human passion, is never the enraptured devotion to a great cause.” This is Ray Carney all over. He’s not a bad guy, nor is he a particularly great one. He’s neither a progressive nor a conservative. He’s not insensitive to the historical dramas that unfold around him, but neither is he a major player in them. He’s not always sure which side he’s on, or even what the sides are.

To the extent that Ray has a theory of history, it’s one of decline—at least where New York is concerned. He’s one of several characters in Crook Manifesto who describe the city as going to hell. It could seem that way in the ’70s, of course, when a city that for several generations had epitomized American prosperity, ingenuity, and prestige was rapidly becoming synonymous with decay. Crime rose precipitously throughout the decade; between 1965 and 1975, the murder rate more than doubled. The white middle class absconded to the suburbs in droves, seriously depleting a once munificent tax base. Draconian cuts in services and infrastructure followed, as New York rapidly ran out of money, culminating in the default crisis of 1975, which found the city $13 billion in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy. Tourists arriving at airports were handed terrifying pamphlets produced by police and firefighter unions, warning that they were about to enter “Fear City.” Whitehead’s novel registers all of this urban dysfunction, using it to establish a Dickensian mood of ambient malaise. “Things were definitely in decline all over, across zip codes,” Carney thinks:

Strike threats and work stoppages, the yellow stain of pollution above and dangerous fractures in the infrastructure below. It was creeping on everyone, like a gloom blowing over the East River and into the vast grid, the apprehension that things were not as they had been and it would be a long time before they were right again.

Crook Manifesto, like Harlem Shuffle before it, is structured as a triptych: It’s not a single narrative but three linked novellas, with overlapping themes and characters but largely discrete plotlines. In the first section, “Ringolevio,” set in 1971, Ray attempts to score Jackson 5 tickets for his teenage daughter, a quest that leads him to reconnect with his old acquaintance Detective Munson, a dirty cop who can usually lay his hands on in-demand merchandise. Munson, unbeknownst to Ray, is on the run from the Knapp Commission, a real-life investigatory panel created by Mayor John Lindsay to ferret out police corruption in the wake of Frank Serpico’s whistleblowing, and he quickly embroils Carney not only in his own personal drama but also in intrigues involving rival groups of Black militants whom the cops are attempting to quash.

Though the plot zips along and Whitehead’s witty, agile prose keeps pace, Crook Manifesto is, at heart, a middle-aged man’s book. Whitehead avails himself of several different points of view throughout, but the book’s primary protagonists are Ray and his friend and associate Pepper (also introduced in Harlem Shuffle), an aging enforcer who once worked with Ray’s father. Whitehead, who is now in his mid-fifties, settles comfortably into the perspectives of these bemused, world-weary older dudes, and one of the novel’s driving forces is the friction between their hard-bitten cynicism and the utopian verve of Black culture in the ’70s. Ray and Pepper both regard with skepticism the various innovations in fashion, music, art, and politics driven by “a younger crowd that—in their brash clothes and militant anthems and anarchic fearlessness—rebuked a previous generation’s mannered rebellions.” Ray, for instance, is irked by the radical politics his daughter is absorbing on the streets of Harlem: “Half her conversation these days came from 125th Street flyers: ‘It all goes back to the miseducation of the Negro, Daddy.’ Black Power guys and their pamphlets were worse than Jehovah’s Witnesses.” An internecine conflict between the Black Panthers and the Marxist-Leninist splinter group Black Liberation Army crops up at the edges of Crook Manifesto’s first section, but for Ray it’s largely a distraction from matters of more immediate concern (scoring those elusive Jackson 5 tickets). He’s inherited his criminal father’s skepticism about social justice, which he regards as a probable scam: “Big Mike Carney pegged the civil rights movement—‘these so-called righteous brothers’—as fellow hustlers.… Work rackets for a living and you see them everywhere, the possibilities, the little crack where an enterprising soul might sneak in a crowbar.”

Pepper, for his part, is even more leery of the younger generation, “with their eye-melting clothing and tiresome, uplifting slogans.” (He’s particularly disgruntled by the expression “consciousness raising”: “What do you do with it once you get it up there?” he wonders.) Part of Pepper’s job involves understanding people and how they’re likely to behave in any given situation—and in this sense, the criminal mind is close to that of the novelist: “Everybody’s research when you’re crooked, another variable in a setup down the line.” Pepper’s beef with all these newly raised consciousnesses is less that they’re an affront to his values—it’s unclear whether he has any to speak of—than that they interfere with the split-second psychological calculus that’s so crucial to his work. “The new shit was always upon you and you had to adjust, such was life, but the new shit came so fast these days, and it was so wily and unlikely, that he had a hard time keeping up,” Pepper admits to himself at one point. (Come to think of it, that sounds a bit like the lament of a middle-aged novelist as well.)

“The new shit” asserts itself most forcefully in the book’s second section, “Nefertiti T.N.T.,” which is set in 1973 and concerns a film production that is using Carney’s furniture store on 125th Street as a shooting location. The film’s director is a young artist named Zippo, who has transitioned from taking “compromising photographs” for blackmail purposes (though “Zippo considered them just the opposite: uncompromising”) to becoming a Warhol-style art star who “dress[es] like a Negro Salvador Dalí.” Zippo is now attempting to break into the commercial film industry by cashing in on the nascent Blaxploitation trend, inspired by a revelatory viewing of Blacula. When the movie’s leading lady, Lucinda Cole, mysteriously goes missing, the director dispatches Pepper to locate her.

In one of Crook Manifesto’s key scenes, Pepper, on the hunt for Lucinda, watches a stand-up act by the comedian Roscoe Pope, a Richard Pryor–type provocateur. Pope, who has been cast opposite Lucinda in Nefertiti T.N.T. and currently has a hit record on the charts called Memo from Dr. Goodpussy, does bits about fellatio, lynching, Black superheroes, and slavery for an appreciative, and racially mixed, audience. Pepper understands that he, a product of the Jim Crow era, is bearing witness to “a generation that took for granted that a black man could talk like that and not get his ass shot.” Witnessing Roscoe’s outrageousness, Pepper feels a mixture of repulsion and respect: “This was a new-type Negro before him, and a room full of people tuned into his wild style.” It’s a poignant moment: It’s too late for Pepper to take advantage of these “new-type” freedoms, which he half-suspects will be revoked soon anyway, but he marvels at the spectacle of liberation nonetheless.

Though most of Crook Manifesto’s narrative is picaresque, proceeding from one colorful incident to the next without much sense of overarching design, its final section, set in the Bicentennial year of 1976, does gesture toward larger, more sinister stakes. In “The Finishers,” Ray and Pepper investigate a ring of arsonists who are torching real estate properties for the insurance money, and uncover an intricate conspiracy involving City Hall, the RAND Corporation, and a cabal of corrupt Black community leaders who belong to a (fictional) Harlem society called the Dumas Club.

“There are always secret rackets underway that you know nothing about, even as they run your life,” Ray reflects, upon learning more about the fires that are consuming large portions of the South Bronx and other low-income, majority Black areas of New York. “One racket brought mayhem, like the scams and rip-offs steering the city into decline, and another invisible racket held everything up so things didn’t completely go to hell.” In riffs like this, Whitehead marries the brutally unsentimental perspective of Richard Stark’s Parker novels to the paranoid arias of Thomas Pynchon. In the end, though, Stark’s ground-level starkness wins out over Pynchon’s galaxy-brain complexity: “Simpler than conspiracy was Carney’s take: In general, people were terrible.”

By the end of Crook Manifesto, one comes to feel that the element of crime fiction that ultimately attracts its author is not action or violence—though plenty of bodies get knocked around in the course of the novel, and a few fare worse than that—but cynicism. Whitehead has perfected the jaded, seen-it-all narrative voice invented by Dashiell Hammett and other hard-boiled crime writers in the 1920s and ’30s and honed to a nihilistic knife’s edge by Stark in (perhaps not coincidentally) the 1970s. This sardonic mode, which Whitehead inhabits so comfortably, allows him both to track historical change in minute detail and to suggest that, on some level, he’s as unimpressed as his characters are by what he documents. Again and again, the novel suggests that the new shit is always upon you, but nothing really changes—that the same eternal cycles of greed and graft underlie every putative innovation or advance. Everything, in the final analysis, is a racket—even history.