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Colson Whitehead on the heists, fire, and movie magic of his new novel Crook Manifesto

The two-time Pulitzer winner is using his Harlem Shuffle trilogy to tell the history of New York.

The cover of Colson Whitehead’s book “Crook Manifesto.” Doubleday Books
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Colson Whitehead has had a big decade. He won back-to-back Pulitzers for his novels The Underground Railroad (2016) and The Nickel Boys (2019). Then he saw The Underground Railroad get adapted into one of the most critically acclaimed TV series of 2021. Now, he’s following it all up with his new novel Crook Manifesto, the second volume in the trilogy he began with 2021’s Harlem Shuffle.

The Harlem Shuffle books have a deceptively simple premise. They deal with one Ray Carney, a midcentury Harlem furniture salesman striving after upper-middle-class respectability — with the help of a modest sideline in reselling stolen goods. In each novel, Carney falls half-accidentally into one criminal caper after another, with results that are often moving, frequently funny, and always extremely fun to read.

Whitehead’s great trick is to make Carney not only a compelling protagonist but also a window. Through his eyes, we see Harlem and New York shift and realign themselves through the turbulent 20th century. Harlem Shuffle takes place in the gleaming, prosperous New York of the 1960s, with crime-ridden Harlem hidden in northern Manhattan like a dirty secret. In Crook Manifesto we reach the 1970s, when, as Carney observes, “You knew the city was going to hell if the Upper East Side was starting to look like crap, too.”

I called up Whitehead to find out more about how he built Carney’s world. Together, we talked about police corruption, how to write a three-act structure, and the ever-changing landscape of New York City. Highlights of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, are below.

One of the big arcs in this book is the destabilization of New York in the 1970s. What drew you to writing about that moment in time?

I started with an idea to write about a heist novel set in the ’60s, and then it sort of expanded. It became two books and then three books. It’s tracing the main character, Ray Carney, over 30 years, but also the city.

It’s a cliché to say, “The city’s almost a character,” but it became apparent that the city was a character. The same way that Ray Carney has his ups and downs, a city is going through its transformations as well. In the ’70s, New York was a pretty hard place to live in. The city was bankrupt. Crime was at an all-time high. It makes a compelling stage for Ray Carney’s adventures, and also is an important part of the city’s history.

What made you decide to expand Harlem Shuffle out into a trilogy?

I was enjoying it. I kept coming up with different stories for Ray. It started off as one story: Harlem Shuffle. And then I kept coming up with more capers. So that first book became three different adventures. Halfway through writing that book, I came up with even more and it was too big for one book, so it became two. I’ve never done a trilogy before, but I’ve never had a world that I want to keep exploring. If I step back, it’s maybe not three books, but one 1,200-page story about a man and the city.

What’s interesting is that to me is that the book feels more serialized than a lot of your other work. I mean, I’m always very impressed by your three-act structuring. It’s always very crisp and clean. But the three sections of Crook Manifesto feel very discrete in a way that I haven’t seen from you before.

I sort of see him as three novellas that come together, Voltron-style, to make one book through their themes. Each adventure can stand alone, but I think they gain power together. Fire is an important thing. It builds from chapter to chapter, starting off in the margins in the first section in 1971 and of course becoming a major driver of the plot in the third section.

I am plotting each story individually and each story does have its three acts, but also, each story is one act in the overall book itself.

I want to talk a little about the Knapp Commission, this 1970 investigation into corruption in the NYPD, which looms over the first section of the book. Was that a story that you were familiar with before you started writing, or did you come upon it during research?

I knew about it from Serpico. I was a big movie fan growing up, and part of the book is inspired by ’70s crime movies like Dog Day Afternoon, another Sydney Labette movie. He did the movie Serpico, and I was 11 or 12 and saw it on afternoon television and that’s how I first heard of the Knapp Commission. With this book, I’m trying to find different things in New York history I can hang on for a story that will serve Ray Carney, and it was cool to go back to Peter Moss’s nonfiction book about Frank Serpico, to go to the original Knapp Commission documents. So I learned about it from a movie and then ended up making my own story out of it.

I was researching it to talk about it with you, and I found this Village Voice article written shortly after the report from the Commission came out in 1973. It says, “There is no more talk of a few rotten apples in the barrel. It is the barrel that is rotten. The only trouble is that we are all still inside it, and the Commission has not told us how to get out.”

It really speaks to this sense that the book evokes so beautifully, that the legal system has no strategies in place to fix this catastrophe developing in the city, and the strategies it does present turn out to be just another grift. Was that one of the ideas you were interested in developing as you wrote?

There’s no institution that remains uncorrupted in this book: City Hall, real estate, the police department. The worldview of this book is not very cheerful — except, I don’t know, I think Ray Carney seems to be having a good time most of the time. I think we can put our trust in individuals and our family unit or friends, but all the institutions in the book are definitely corrupt.

You evoke this sense of persistent corruption and a kind of stasis that it creates. At the same time, you’re also dealing with this idea that the city is in constant flux and a cycle of destruction and recreation. So how do you think about keeping those ideas in dialogue with each other?

They exist at the same time, that idea of “churn” as I call it in the book, the renewal. Transformation is part of our own personal lives. So Ray Carney has his ups and downs and of course the city is going through its own transformations.

The end of Harlem Shuffle deals with the days of Camelot and JFK-era optimism. The space race. The World’s Fair in Queens is underway. But two miles away in Harlem, the city’s in disrepair. We’re going to the ’70s after that. And then the ’80s, when the city does sort of climb out of its fiscal crisis. Wall Street becomes another powerful engine of change again. And then in the late ’80s, if you lived in New York City, you can see the AIDS crisis and the crack epidemic and the recession coming again. That’s the cycle of people’s lives and life in a city.

I had to research the history of Harlem, and the city’s always being laid low. By a terrorist attack. A pandemic, which was happening when I was writing the book. We’re at war with the British. We’re at war with the Native Americans we stole the island from. There’s fires and yellow fever and terrorist attacks, and the city has to come back and always does. So there’s a resiliency there that’s in our main character, that’s in the supporting cast, and also in the city itself.

Besides the corruption in government institutions, we also see corruption reaching into the entertainment industry. That’s most apparent with the second section about the blaxploitation movie. But I kept thinking about it also in the first section, when Carney’s daughter is just obsessed with the Jackson 5, and she especially loves Michael. Were you thinking as you wrote about the way that we eventually learned about Michael Jackson would inflect those passages?

I wrote a book called Sag Harbor that dealt with The Road Warrior and Mel Gibson and Afrika Bambaataa, who was canceled for sexually abusing young people. Mel Gibson, of course, is a horrible anti-Semite and racist. And there’s also a section on Bill Cosby and the Cosby family of the ’80s. I feel like a poison touch when I deal with pop culture, all that stuff that happened after I wrote the book.

In this case, I knew Michael Jackson’s history does overlap with the themes of the book. There’s this hidden corruption underneath. Everything looks legit, but of course, we know what’s gonna happen later on, what he’s gonna do.

It’s the same way that I open with Radio Row in Harlem Shuffle. It’s a neighborhood that was destroyed to make way for the World Trade Center, creating this crater. Then the World Trade Center goes up. There’s another crater. And then we have the Freedom Tower. We have the perspective of reading it in the early 21st century, so we know all that hidden history of these things that the characters aren’t aware of.

And then we also have the bicentennial, which looms over the third section. Carney finds himself reacting to that very cynically and keeps trying to figure out how he can keep that view out of public consumption. So how did you decide the bicentennial would become a set piece? Did you know as soon as you were dealing with the ’70s that would have to?

I’m trying to find moments that speak to the themes of the book. The blackout of 1977 seems a good opportunity. It’s almost too obvious. So I sort of avoided that. But 1976, our bicentennial, is a good place to talk about how we don’t necessarily, in our actions, live up to our ideals. There’s a corruption there in the American ideal because we let down the Declaration. So it’s a moment of ironic commentary in very different ways for Ray.

There’s a Frederick Douglass speech, “What is the Fourth of July to a slave,” and every year on Twitter, someone retweets that and it’s like, “Yes.” What does the bicentennial mean for Black citizens? It was true in Frederick Douglass’s time, and we have that question now.

You talked a little bit earlier about how the book is united through the motif and the theme of fire, which was sort of interesting for a crime novel. Harlem Shuffle is a heist novel. There’s lots and lots of heist novels out there. You kind of have a set of tropes. But there’s really not as many arson books out there that offer tropes to play with. So did you turn to any other crime novels or movies to see how other people have written about arson?

It’s always good when you’re the first person. There aren’t a lot of crime novels about fences [who sell stolen goods]. They’re a lot of stories where our heroes, or antiheroes, have stolen $2 million in jewels and they’re being pursued by the police. Half of them are dead. And then they bring their ill-gotten gains to the fence, who says, “I’ll give you 10 cents on the dollar.” I always found that figure appalling, and then I thought, “Who was that person?” These sort of underserved supporting characters are an opportunity for me, in terms of storytelling.

Of course, municipal corruption is a big thing in nonfiction and movies and I always found that investigation very attractive. I think Chinatown is the most accessible example. On one level, there’s a simple crime, but behind that is the whole citywide corruption. That is a common noir theme.

It was interesting to notice a shift in perspective between these two books. Harlem Shuffle is in Carney’s mind pretty much the whole way through. I think there’s a few jumps out. But in Crook Manifesto there are whole sections that are from the points of view of other characters. How did you come to the conclusion that you would have to shift narrative modes between these two books?

The story allows or prohibits those kinds of shifts. In Harlem Shuffle, I may go to somebody’s POV for a couple of pages. Pepper [a career criminal and Carney’s occasional ally] gets a section here and there. In this book, he gets his own full-story novella, and Carney’s on the sidelines. The canvas gets bigger. I’ve got more opportunities as a storyteller to explore different perspectives.

One thing is, I love Pepper. Once he appeared in the first book, I had a strong feeling he’d get his own story. He has a different perspective on crime, on city, on family. He’s a loner. So what does he see when he interacts with Carney and Elizabeth [Carney’s wife] and the kids? Carney has one idea about the criminal activities conducted, and of course Pepper, being a pro, has a more mature and idiosyncratic perspective.

It was fun and a great storytelling opportunity to give Pepper his due. And also to bring back people like Zippo, who’s a minor character in the first book and becomes a driving force of some of the action in the second book. We get to know him more.

I knew, when I finished Harlem Shuffle, that I would write a second one. I was able to plot some of the second book into the third book and put in clues or set up things in Harlem Shuffle. So Alexander Oakes is mentioned in passing in the first book and becomes a major player in this book. It’s a big city. I try to populate it. There are corners that Carney can’t see, and that becomes an opportunity for me.

Pepper’s novella is the second section of the book, which takes place largely on the set of a blaxploitation movie. A lot of the details in that section are so fun and feel very grounded in the experience of having watched what happens on a movie set. Was any of that drawn from your experience of watching Underground Railroad be adapted?

Not Underground, but I’ve had friends who have done low-budget movies, so I’ve been on a set a few times. But it’s really informed by loving those movies as a kid. There weren’t a lot of Black-oriented movies in the ’70s. The ones that came out were blaxploitation movies, and I gravitated toward them. In my early 20s I was a critic, and I was often writing about Black imagery and pop culture. I would go back to those movies as a 20-something and analyze them, and now I come to them in my 50s as a novelist.

How can a crime movie comment on criminal activity, like my fictional criminal activity? We have actors who are playing criminals who get caught up in a real-life criminal scheme. So it’s all that sort of nice play that was sort of delightful for me to fool around with.

We have Lucinda Cole, who’s a rising star in the ’60s. We see her in the ’70s and her career hasn’t gone that well. There’s this injustice in the film industry. A character who seems to be on the way up is going to be brought down by institutional failures.

It’s fun also because Pepper is such a weirdo and his perspective on humans provides a lot of humor, but also, hopefully, touches on some other themes in the book.

You’ve said that you tend to think of your projects as alternating fun books and heavier books. Do you imagine that after this trilogy, you’ll be picking up something darker, or do you think you’ll keep going on a fun streak for a while?

The novel I have planned once my schedule is clear has some jokes but also kind of a downer. So maybe in my age, I’m going to integrate those separate ideas of the light and the dark. We’ll see if I pull the trigger on that one once I’m done with the trilogy.

And is there anything you can share about the final volume of the trilogy?

It’s in the 1980s, so: Ed Koch. I’m still in the early pages but he’s appearing.

I’m picking my spots for Carney and for Pepper, and ways to talk about the evolving city. What happens after the fiscal crisis is over, what other crises loom large. New York is a great big complicated place and it’s providing a lot of great material.

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