Colson Whitehead headshot by Chris Close
August 2023

The Whitehead manifesto

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As the Ray Carney series steps into the 1970s, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead continues to explore history through propulsive heist narratives that go far beyond crimes and cover-ups.
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The Ray Carney saga is Colson Whitehead’s first series, and just like his readers, he feels passionately about the man at its center: a respectable, upwardly mobile furniture salesman by day, and fence of stolen goods by night. “I love him too. He’s been a great source of pleasure and inspiration,” says the author. But that affection doesn’t stop Whitehead from mercilessly putting Ray through the wringer. 

Picking up four years after the close of Harlem Shuffle, Crook Manifesto heightens the dangers and stakes for the prosperous Harlem merchant and former hustler, and Ray soon gets sucked back into life on the seamier side. After all, as Whitehead writes, “crooked stays crooked and bent hates straight.” 

In truth, the author may love Ray now, but the character was born out of a kind of hate—the distaste Whitehead felt for a ubiquitous trope in heist movies. “The character of the fence is always a travesty,” he says. “The team does all the work, and half the crew’s dead—they’re crawling or bloody, the cops are after them. And then some random guy you haven’t even seen before in the whole movie is like ‘10 cents on the dollar.’”

“I hated the fence so much that I started thinking, who is that? Who is that guy?” 

Whitehead was incensed by the patterns he observed on-screen, but that ire gave way to curiosity: “I hated the fence so much that I started thinking, who is that? Who is that guy?” And from this interrogation came the driving force of the Ray Carney trilogy: “the psychology of the fence. . . . Having a front business and having your illegal stuff in the back provided the divided nature of Ray Carney.”

Although Whitehead kept his cards close to the vest, he knew almost from the start that he had a series on his hands. While the initial instinct was “to do a heist book and just have fun with that genre,” once started, the ideas kept flowing. There was just too much material, and he was having too much fun to stop at one book. “I was halfway through [Harlem Shuffle], and I was coming up with more capers that obviously would not fit,” he says. 

Doing the math, he figured: six adventures, two books. But also, “if you do two, might as well do three. You know, I’m definitely a rule-of-three guy.” Still, he proceeded cautiously in terms of commitment. He didn’t want to be held to a third book, just in case he got bored—but that never happened. Now he’s deep in the writing of Ray’s third and presumably final set of adventures.

Along with the series being a trilogy, each individual book has a three-act structure. Harlem Shuffle tells of three separate misadventures for Ray at three pivotal moments during the 1960s, and this structure continues in Crook Manifesto, which evokes the ’70s down to the sight, feel and smell of a crumbling New York City. In the first book, Ray is in his 30s; second book, 40s; third book, 50s. Ray’s experiences with aging and all its attendant challenges are essential to the series, and it also means that initially, “his kids are babies; in the second book, they’re teenagers of varying degrees of annoyingness; and in the third book, they’ll be in college and out of the house.”

Three decades is, as Whitehead says, “a long stretch of time.” But in addition to the capers and misadventures that flow from the heist narrative, he found something compelling about the mystery surrounding the fence, and with great finesse he explores the dichotomy between Ray’s straight-and-narrow life and “the call of the street.” We witness Ray’s wrestling with his criminal nature—“bending toward it, embracing it, rejecting it,” Whitehead says—and by shifting our focus to this internal tug of war, we are invited to think beyond the usual markers of time and success.

In the four-year interregnum between Harlem Shuffle and Crook Manifesto, Ray has kept his nose clean, built a prosperous business and bought both a commercial building for his store and a home for his family, moving uptown to the much storied if fraying Strivers’ Row. It’s a laudable, remarkable rise for the son of a failed career criminal, and yet it’s not enough. 

In 1971, the year Crook Manifesto kicks off, Ray’s sabbatical from crime ends abruptly in an almost ironic way, considering the innocence of the inciting incident in comparison to the refuse he must wade through after. Ray calls on an old contact to get tickets to a sold-out (and history-making) Jackson 5 concert for his 15-year-old daughter—although as Whitehead points out, this fatherly duty is a cover to give in to an itch that’s been nagging at him for years. 

The world around Ray is also evolving. In Harlem Shuffle, Whitehead allowed the pull of crucial—though not necessarily widely remembered—events in New York City history to guide him in shaping Ray’s story. In pursuit of key moments to “exploit,” he arrived upon the anti-police Harlem riots in 1943 and 1964. Whitehead decided that Invisible Man had portrayed the former in such an iconic, indelible manner that “I’ll let Ralph [Ellison] keep the 1940s one. I haven’t read a lot of stuff about the 1960s one. So it was open territory.”

The tension between the public and the police escalates to a palpable and deadly fever pitch in Crook Manifesto. The New York Police Department wages war against Black power activists, and a police corruption scandal widens, putting cops in the hot seat. And yet, in a way that matches the dualism of the novel’s leading man, Ray’s story also shows how normal life goes on alongside such events.

In keeping with that, the movie- and music-obsessed author takes the opportunity to throw his love of pop culture history into the mix, something that gives him great pleasure. “I was very taken with that idea that I could get my pop culture fixation and bring Ray along,” he says. So in addition to the Jackson 5 concert, which provides a soundtrack and momentum for Crook Manifesto’s first movement, the second section weaves in the rise of Blaxploitation cinema. It’s a heady and riveting mashup of politics, culture, family life and crime that only a talent of Whitehead’s stature could so seamlessly blend.

Photo of Colson Whitehead by Chris Close.

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Crook Manifesto

Crook Manifesto

By Colson Whitehead
ISBN 9780385545150

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