Crook Manifesto

When the Underworld Comes Knocking: Colson Whitehead’s Crook Manifesto

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Ten pages into Colson Whitehead’s ninth novel, Crook Manifesto (Doubleday) and the second installment in his Harlem Trilogy, protagonist Ray Carney attempts to explain to his son the difference between the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army. “The Panthers are opening food pantries, they have that free-breakfast program, legal aid–reform. The BLA wants to overthrow the whole system,” he states, not exactly with reproach.

While both organizations were rooted in Marxist-Leninist ideology, apocryphally, the BLA was founded in the wake of Eldridge Cleaver’s exile from the Panthers, whom he accused of being more interested in reform than revolt. For the next decade, the BLA took the fight for Black liberation underground, the only place from which it could wage war against the racial-capitalist project, in a barrage of bombings, bank robberies, prison breaks, and police assassinations.

And it’s the underground from which Carney has emerged. This is Ray Carney, the same protagonist of Harlem Shuffle, the trilogy’s first installment, which is set in the early 1960s. By 1971, six years after the end of Shuffle, Ray Carney has cut ties to his criminal past of fencing stolen goods. He and his family have settled into a respectable, upper middle class life on Harlem’s Strivers’ Row. But when his daughter prods him for the Jackson 5 tickets he promised, Carney reaches out to an old contact from the city’s underground economy: a crooked white cop named Munson, who says he can get the tickets in exchange for a job.

What follows is Carney’s descent back into a Stygian world. One of hustlers and black radicals, shit-shooting old heads and flamboyant pimp daddies in synthetic furs, one of downtown comedians headed uptown for dope, glittering starlets and the trust fund Warholians bankrolling them—in other words, New York. Or perhaps, its shadow. A city in which acts of extraordinary violence are carried out with the ease of children’s play.

Crook Manifesto is even structured like a game, a kind of literary Grand Theft Auto—the novel operating on a logic of leveling-up, as Carney descends ever-deeper into the criminal world. The novel’s first act, Ringolevio (which takes its name from a real-life children’s game), is described as “hide and seek and cops and robbers, with a twist,” by Munson, who grew up playing with his fellow Hell’s Kitchen delinquents. The twist? The game is invisible to those outside it—bystanders, shop owners—even as it circles and ensnares them.

Carney, who himself played as a boy, remembers it “like tag, but bigger and more monstrous,” the field of play extending from a few city blocks to the expanse of the entire city, unbounded by space and time. “Legends of games that went on for days,” pausing for meals and sleep, the roles of cop and robber exchanged interchangeably. “You were a cop and then a robber and a cop again,” recalls Officer Munson. And on this fateful night, he wants Carney to play again, this time with deadly stakes.

In tracing how Carney’s attempt to make good on a promise leads him down a path of bad, Whitehead’s novel invokes moral questions. Hardly the BLA militants driven to crime by a commitment to radical progress, the malcontents of Carney’s world worship at the altar of the almighty dollar. To them, getting money is all a game—grafts ranging from the relatively innocuous, shilling “fall off a truck” wares to willing patrons, to those far more sinister, torching down tenements for the insurance payout, their tenants still asleep inside. But given the systems that govern that daylit city are every bit as arbitrary and stacked against these men, there is a moral ambiguity to these acts of self-interest. As radicals forge unsavory partnerships with the NYPD and good men abet acts of evil, Whitehead’s novel asks if the ends truly justify the means—or if, indeed, everyone gets up with fleas.

Bleak as it may sound, Carney’s world is rendered in almost luxuriant, comedic detail, one of Whitehead’s greatest talents. There is evidence of exuberant play on every page. Describing the cast of minor-characters like Fuzzy Pete and Cubby the Worm, nicknamed for their illicit talents, Whitehead imbues a sense that these men are itching for scale, some elevation above their station. Likewise, Whitehead’s women are not immune to seething ambition. In one digressive anecdote (and there are many), two cooks, Lady Betsy and Viola Lewis, compete for the title of Harlem’s best fried chicken—a rivalry which naturally concludes in a heist.

While these asides flesh out each character’s expansive inner world in colorful detail, they at times hinder the already bogged plot’s momentum, not unlike the effect of finding oneself on a local, uptown train. And while Whitehead, a two-time Pulitzer, one-time National Book Award–winning Macarthur “genius,” is almost infuriatingly skilled at imagining these intricate histories, the exact purpose for their inclusion in the novel is at times unclear, beyond providing each guest star in the inevitable adaptation with a robust set of motivations.

But through all of these smoke-filled rooms, one ringleader emerges in each act, whom Carney and his main muscle Pepper must defeat, tilting the narrative arc toward redemption, even as the city succumbs to chaos. Looking out at the streets on fire, Carney begins to piece together a larger architecture, connecting instances of seemingly isolated crookery. He eventually aims his lens at Borough President–hopeful Alexander Oakes, a member of Harlem’s Black elite for whom Carney’s wife, Elizabeth, is enthusiastically campaigning. In Oakes, Whitehead has created one of his most surprising and sinister villains, a man whose callous self-interest is disguised beneath the veneer of racial progress. He is the collision of the city’s many grifts, his hands in everyone’s pockets—the insurance claims and urban renewal kickbacks. “The Gimbels of graft,” Whitehead writes, in reference to the then-ritzy New York department store. Carney observes from the sidelines, recognizing the city’s corruption is of a scale so great that it is in the air they breathe, and yet is unable to muster the courage to do anything about it. That is, until a boy is hospitalized, and like a neo-noir detective, Carney decides to take matters into his hands: “To avenge—who? The boy? To punish bad men? Which ones—there were too many to count. The city was burning. It was burning not because of sick men with matches and cans of gas but because the city itself was sick, waiting for fire, begging for it.”

Strangely, the “final boss” of this labyrinthine novel is at his most sinister when he is least violent. At a campaign fundraiser held at the Black members club Dumas, amid the wafting pretense and passed hors d’oeuvres, Oakes makes his way toward Carney. He strikes up a conversation, and, in the off-handed way politicians can be precise and gutting, says, “you’ve come a long way.”And later, this is what the ex-fence remembers: “come a long way from what?”

Though it leaves the trilogy on a cliffhanger, Whitehead is already laying out its bigger themes, suggesting that class ascension—or the myth of it—is itself a grift, perhaps the city’s greatest. It is evident in the quietly violent way that the born Black bourgeoisie keep the hood-rich out of their club; the way a Blaxploitation actress uses a racist fiction to fuel her fame; the way that, no matter how successful he becomes, Carney is forever bound by his past, relegated to the role of striver.

The men trying to make themselves myths are, in the end, crabs in Oakes’s barrel, clawing at a thing they’ll never have. And if they cannot have it, they’re content to burn it down.




Rob Franklin is a Brooklyn-based writer of fiction, poetry, and criticism. A child of the American South, Franklin often revisits southern landscapes in his work, exploring fissures of identity: race, class, and the betrayals that can occur in intimate relationships across those lines. His work has appeared in New England Review, The Masters Review, and Prairie Schooner, among others. He’s currently at work on a novel. More from this author →