Colson Whitehead reinvents himself again

“After the obscurity of the last two books, the levity, the humble charm of Carney, fulfills a psychological need for me,” he said. “I c...


“After the obscurity of the last two books, the levity, the humble charm of Carney, fulfills a psychological need for me,” he said. “I could explore the world in a different way, which is unrelated to these terrible systems of capitalism and institutional racism.”

Yet, writing about Harlem in the 1960s, Whitehead found himself revisiting themes that had long preoccupied him: racial injustice, class disparities, entrenched power structures that allow the ruling class to exploit vulnerable people. The novel’s final milestone occurs shortly after the Harlem riots in 1964, which erupted after a 15-year-old black student named James Powell was fatally shot by a white policeman. Whitehead had just finished writing it when protests erupted across the United States in response to the murder of George Floyd.

“It was very strange,” he says. “I chose the week after the Harlem riot because I didn’t want to exploit the incident. And then we were there again.

Whitehead had the idea for a detective novel in Harlem seven years ago, but he put it aside to write “The Nickel Boys”. A follower of heist films like “Dog Day Afternoon”, “Asphalt Jungle” “Charley Varrick”, “The Taking of Pelham 123” and “The Outfit”, he wanted to write a detective novel from the point of view of fences, men of main and other low-ranking crooks and scammers.

“I might be presumptuous, but I think everyone has their criminal side that can come out and speak, or express themselves in tiny ways. Maybe you, you know, steal a packet of chewing gum, ”he said. “It doesn’t involve throwing bodies and stuff like that, usually.”

Whitehead dabbled in the novels of Chester Himes, Patricia Highsmith and Richard Stark, one of Donald Westlake’s pen names. He read a memoir by Mayme Hatcher Johnson, wife of Harlem crime boss Bumpy Johnson, which turned out to be a wealth of advice on criminal enterprise. He bent over the newspaper advertisements of the day to find out the price of a hat or a cup of coffee, and studied different models of safes (“Aitkens took three or four good knocks before to have enough purchase for a crowbar “while Drummond” needed six to eight strokes “, he writes).

He was immersed in writing when he realized he had an untapped resource – his parents, who lived in Harlem in the 1960s, and raised him and his siblings, in Midtown and Upper Manhattan. He learned that his father worked in the summer at Blumstein’s, an upscale department store where Carney got his first job selling furniture, and that his father frequented the Chock Full o’Nuts next to the Theresa Hotel, where Carney goes for coffee and waitress for gossip and information.

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