Book review: Crook Manifesto, by Colson Whitehead

Returning to the character of Ray Carney, “the biggest nobody in Harlem”, Colson Whitehead’s latest novel has either a wisecrack line or a point to ponder on every page, writes Stuart Kelly

Crook Manifesto brings back Ray Carney, dismissively referred to as “the biggest nobody in Harlem” in Colson Whitehead’s previous novel, Harlem Shuffle. He still has his wife and children, and his furniture store; but has supposedly retired from the extra-legal “side jobs”. Until, of course, he hasn’t. When I reviewed Harlem Shuffle I mentioned the feeling of a tinder-box. Well, this puts on the kerosene. This triptych moves from 1971, to ’73, to ’76. Things are falling apart with increasing rapidity. You do not have to have read Harlem Shuffle to appreciate Crook Manifesto. Certain pieces of backstory such as the Dumas Club are quickly sketched in, and Carney’s character and history are swiftly rehearsed. This does not, however, come anywhere close to how drastic things will become. Brilliantly – Whitehead is always clever on race – it is tickets for the Jackson 5 that precipitate the various calamities.

As the first novella opens, Carney is still obsessed with “the churn”, the movement of items in the system. Only now it is not just stolen toasters and the occasional piece of high-value jewellery. The churn has infected property. On one hand, this is good for Carney as a new landlord rather than slumlord. On the other, the city’s re-development has led to a spate of convenient arsons. In the background is the tactical divergence between the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army, which Carney explains in terms of upholstery: do we want reform or revolution? Because the convertible sofa is a revolution and moreover was patented by a black man. None of which is helping Carney get his Jackson 5 tickets, and having hit up all his contacts, he reaches out to the corrupt detective Munson. He can get the tickets, but Carney has to be his bagman and fence and accomplice for the night. As he ruefully reflects, “crooked stays crooked”. Munson is rather more crooked than the taciturn Carney, and is being investigated by the Knapp Commission into police corruption, hence his need for quick cash. Suffice to say things go pear-shaped.

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But when we move on a few years, it is his father’s old friend Pepper centre-stage. Carney has allowed a blaxploitation film to be filmed in his shop, with Pepper running security. When the leading lady of Secret Agent: Nefertiti disappears, Pepper is tasked with finding her. More fires are burning, and the film’s director has an unhealthy relationship with matches.

Colson Whitehead PIC: Madeline Whitehead/Doubleday via APColson Whitehead PIC: Madeline Whitehead/Doubleday via AP
Colson Whitehead PIC: Madeline Whitehead/Doubleday via AP

The final section brings Pepper and Carney into tandem. Carney is distraught, not just that one of his apartments has been torched, but that a child has been injured. He also has a strong suspicion that the politician his wife is campaigning for is not exactly a clean potato. Hiring Pepper seems like a good idea. The inferno looms. Worse still, Carney can’t come up with a promotional scheme for Bicentennial Day.

The title comes from the internal monologue of Pepper: “A man has a hierarchy of crime, what is morally acceptable and what is not, a crook manifesto, and those who subscribe to lesser codes are cockroaches”. That encapsulates the kind of grimy ethics in this novel. Police and politicians are shadow versions of the organised crime groups. The question hovers over the whole narrative. If you do a bad thing, does it make you a bad person?

Whitehead structures the book in an ingenious way, in that each of the three novellas has a word theme. In the first it is “ringolevio”, a kind of tag game, or hide-and-seek with prison areas. In the second it is “ghost”, as Pepper sees ghost buildings and the ghostliness of filming. In the third it is “schist”, the rock form that Harlem is built on, something enduring and something that resists digging too deep.

Almost every page has either a wisecrack line or a point to ponder. It also uses grammatical switchbacks. In a key scene Carney observes “A machine turned on and it was making a lot of noise but he didn’t know what it did or made or when it was going to finish what it was doing. ‘You do this, maybe you don’t do that,’ Carney said.”

In another part, another character says of Carney’s father – himself not averse to fire-raising “Called him Big Mike I think… He wasn’t so big”. Carney is always ambiguous, always hedging his options, until he becomes the line that will not be crossed.

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Whitehead has always been a diverse novelist, moving between historical fiction, science fiction, social realism and post-modernism. Yet with these novels, it seems as if he has found a groove he can inhabit and expand at the same time. The ending is sufficiently surprising and unsettling that I would give you even odds on this not being the last Carney novel, and it would be fascinating to see what he does with the rise of Reagan. It is almost already there, like lingering smoke. There is a telling reference to the RAND corporation and the rise of “systems analysts”: networks, mainframes and “the usual gang of egghead white guys who want to run shit”.

“Numbers can’t be racist, right?” says a friend, with acid irony. Well, as those who grift and grit know: best to know what’s around the corner.

Crook Manifesto, by Colson Whitehead, Fleet, £20

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