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'Crook Manifesto' takes Colson Whitehead's heist hero in search of Jackson 5 tickets

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"It was the Jackson 5 after all who put Ray Carney back in the game following four years on the straight and narrow." So writes Colson Whitehead at the start of Crook Manifesto, the sequel to his 2021 novel Harlem Shuffle and the second installment of his Harlem Trilogy. Anyone who has already read Harlem Shuffle will immediately feel the playful smack of humor in this seemingly innocuous sentence: As established in that first book, Ray is a hustler of stolen goods who threads his way through New York's yesteryear in a sometimes heroic, sometimes tragicomic attempt to figure out life, fatherhood, and identity.

What's changed? Harlem Shuffle takes place in the 1960s; Crook Manifesto is set ten years later. It's 1971, and his daughter May is now a teenager — and his quest to find her Jackson 5 tickets underscores how even his beloved R&B music has passed him by in his encroaching middle age. When Motown's hottest new act is a group of brothers young enough to be his own children, how can he not feel older? A generational shift is afoot, and it's not just happening to Ray. Black culture, socioeconomic hardship, institutional racism, and New York City itself are morphing rapidly. Staying on top of it is like tiptoeing on quicksand. In true Ray fashion, he ill-advisedly turns toward Munson, a less-than-up-and-up cop who agrees to help Ray get those precious concert tickets for May. That is, for a price. Naturally, his old partner-in-infamy, the thug ultra-violent Pepper, jumps onboard with reckless charisma.

It's a desperate, unforced error done for the noblest impulses, which has long been one of Ray's biggest charms and biggest flaws. Naturally, he gets sucked into a web of capers, coincidences and catastrophes that would be funny if they weren't so deadly. Well, actually, they're both. Crook Manifesto is a kind of trilogy within a trilogy: This second book in the Harlem series is a triptych of extended vignettes that occur in 1971, 1973 and 1976. Each leap in time is an evolution and a backslide for Ray; together they triangulate his haphazard yet dogged navigation of Harlem's underbelly — not to mention his own uneasy stasis between the past and the future, between recidivism and redemption.

Whitehead's flair for texture is as sharp as ever. Pop culture defines Ray's existence. The Jackson 5 is just the tip of the, ahem, Iceberg Slim: Blaxploitation cinema, the martial arts craze, and the simultaneous earthy and lavish fashions of the '70s are given cartoonishly mythic dimensions as well as sly political substance. Harlem Shuffle fans also get a welcome treat: Crook Manifesto's 1973 section is a Pepper-centric romp through the film industry, the Black comedy revolution of that decade (be on the lookout for Richard Pryor Easter eggs), and the paradox of underground stardom.

Whitehead's ever-lengthening list of accolades is as staggering as it is deserved. In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize twice as well as the National Book Award, he's the recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships. Most recently, he was honored with a National Humanities Medal at the White House by President Biden, part of the 2023 class of august creatives that includes Vera Wang and Elton John.

Like so many middle books in a trilogy, Crook Manifesto feels more like a bridge than a fully self-contained work. Its hopscotch chronology gives it a swift, almost breezy ease. The explosive '60s are dead; the momentous '80s are gestating; and the confused '70s are kind of muddling their way along in a haze of post-this and pre-that. America's history bears that pattern out, and in microcosm, so does Ray's. He's a man of his time, but he's no pawn. Except, of course, when Whitehead can draw a good laugh or lesson out it. Even during the book's borderline apocalyptic final third, the corrupt and fiery New York of 1976 gives Pepper, Ray, and his force-of-nature wife Elizabeth a dramatic backdrop against which their relationships are tested and deepened. Through it all, family is Ray's grail, his motivation to be both better and worse. "What else was an ongoing criminal enterprise complicated by periodic violence for," Whitehead writes with the perfect timing of one of his semifictional comedians, "but to make your wife happy?"

What truly makes this series, or any series, work is the way it compels the reader to revisit its characters, to invest in them, to compel you to care enough to see their narratives through. Whitehead knows it, and Crook Manifesto proves it. Ray, May, Elizabeth and Pepper in particular are by turns exasperating and aspirational. Life gets thrown at them, and they throw themselves back in return. These are people you crave to catch up with, and in Whitehead's hands, the vast and intangible forces of society, injustice, morality, survival and love are distilled in them. "I want you back," sang the Jackson 5 so famously. It's how Whitehead makes you feel the instant you close Crook Manifesto. Does that mean it's utterly necessary to go back and read (or re-read) Harlem Shuffle before diving into its sequel? No. But it would be a crime not to.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Jason Heller
[Copyright 2024 NPR]