Crook Manifesto: A Novel
- By Colson Whitehead
- 336 pp.
- Reviewed by Jennifer Bort Yacovissi
- July 25, 2023
Harlem Shuffle’s Ray Carney is back, and this time, he brought friends.
Fans of Colson Whitehead who know him from reading, say, The Nickel Boys or The Underground Railroad might be surprised by the comic spirit that animates both Harlem Shuffle and its follow-up, Whitehead’s latest novel, Crook Manifesto.
Both books prowl New York City’s grimy and violent underbelly of the 1960s and 70s; Whitehead is clearly enjoying himself in the telling, and he takes us along for the ride. Manifesto isn’t just an entertaining beach read, though; the author’s sly social commentary ensures this book has a thoughtful head on its shoulders.
Shuffle introduced us to Ray Carney: husband, father of two, full-time furniture-store owner, and part-time fence. He came up under the unsentimental tutelage of his single father, Big Mike, a freelance criminal generalist who took whatever unseemly jobs came his way. Big Mike would drop his son off for daycare at the local bar whenever he was working.
Nonetheless, Carney’s greater impulse is to be on the straight and narrow — or at least he wants to want to be. He needs to measure up in the eyes of his wife’s upper-middle-class parents, and he truly desires a safe and stable home life for Elizabeth and their children, May and John. What he discovers in his journey as an entrepreneur in Harlem, unfortunately, is that grift is everywhere and staying legitimate is harder than it looks.
Plus, Ray has inherited Big Mike’s need for payback, if not necessarily his stomach for it.
Just as Shuffle was delivered in three parts, covering 1959, 1961, and 1964, Manifesto offers three snippets of life uptown during several of Manhattan’s prime disintegration years: 1971, 1973, and the bicentennial, 1976. Whitehead’s talent here is in capturing the dark zeitgeist of New York at a time when violence, corruption, and the city’s creeping insolvency threatened to burn it all down — often literally — while observing it with an arched eyebrow.
The book opens on a Carney who’s been operating a straight business for four years, having informed his old clients he’s no longer their neighborhood fence. He’s all in on home furnishings, which is not without its modest satisfactions, such as when Carney learns a customer recently died happy in his Sterling Dreamliner recliner:
“His final earthly feeling had been the luxurious caress of that polyurethane core. Carney was glad the man went out satisfied — how tragic for your last thought to be, ‘I should have gone with the Naugahyde.’”
Carney, who has successfully installed his family in the upper-crust section of Harlem, Striver’s Row — though it, too, isn’t what it used to be — has also become a landlord, having purchased (with legit money) the two units stacked on top of his store. Still, when May has her heart set on getting into the very-sold-out Jackson 5 concert at Madison Square Garden, Carney fatefully renews an old contact to try to score tickets. “[S]lip once and everybody is glad to help you slip hard,” Whitehead writes. “Crooked stays crooked and bent hates straight.”
New to Manifesto is the foregrounding of characters other than Carney, all of whom we’ve met before: Munson, the affably corrupt white cop whose collection of a weekly payment envelope from Carney has dropped off these last few years; Zippo, a photographer-turned-filmmaker whose fantasies of fire as art sometimes spill over into the real world; Lucinda Cole, previously an up-and-coming actress squired by local crime lord Chink Montague, now relegated to supporting roles on “The Mod Squad” and “Dragnet”; and, most memorably, Pepper, hired muscle so laconic he’s practically mute:
“His technique: glaring with his arms loosely crossed; lifting a skeptical eyebrow when civilians got too close to the perimeter; the occasional grunt to warn someone off. He was a six-foot frown molded by black magic into human form.”
It’s from Pepper that the narrative takes its name, when — in part two, “Nefertiti TNT” — he tells Zippo he’d never deign to work for the likes of Montague. “No. 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.” By part three, as May and John have started to refer to this frequent visitor as Uncle Pepper, he has stepped in as a main character.
Stakes are highest, however, in part one, “Ringolevio,” when Carney’s epic bad timing lands him in the middle of Munson’s blood-soaked quest for a payday ahead of a Justice Department subpoena. The cop is taking advantage of open war between the NYPD and the Black Liberation Army to steal enough cash to blow town and find a cozy spot to hide in forever. How Carney is going to extract himself before he becomes Munson’s last loose end is, tension-wise, the high point of the book.
Still, the pointed social commentary that illuminates all of Crook Manifesto — including the dissection of the fire-industrial complex that truly lights up infernos in part three, “The Finishers” — makes this a summer read that is both fun and intellectually filling.
Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Her short fiction has appeared in Gargoyle and Pen-in-Hand. Jenny reviews regularly for the Independent and serves on its board of directors as president. She has served as chair or program director of the Washington Writers Conference since 2017, and for several recent years was president of the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association. Stop by Jenny’s website for a collection of her reviews and columns, and follow her on Twitter at @jbyacovissi.