As he traipses into the literary spotlight once again, Colson Whitehead extends his inky tendrils to the spectral folds of Crook Manifesto, a sprightly successor to the canny latticework of “Harlem Shuffle” (2021).
Our guide through this tumultuous epoch, Ray Carney, has shed the criminal skins of his past and, resurfacing as a furniture salesman, yet finds himself once again at the heart of the urban carnival of 1970s New York.
Like a puppeteer’s marionette, Carney’s life is jolted into the glaring maw of the city’s crime scene due to a seemingly innocent paternal whim – securing Jackson 5 tickets for his star-struck daughter.
The narrative, a tapestry woven with three threads, unravels from 1971 to 1976, charting the perilous swells of Carney’s journey through a sea of corruption, political upheaval, and cultural disquiet.
Whitehead casts his line deep into the pool of time, snaring the reader with his erudite exploration of the zeitgeist — the gritty emergence of blaxploitation cinema, a city seared by rampant arson attacks, and the Black Panthers’ thorny ascent.
Our protagonist teeters on the precipice of his past and future, his sense of identity pulling him towards redemption even as circumstances cast him back into the underworld’s sordid embrace.
To spice up the narrative, Whitehead cheekily lets loose a blaxploitation film shoot in Carney’s showroom, with Pepper, our hero’s confidant, juggling security duties.
Whitehead’s prose pirouettes between genres with the elegance of a prima ballerina, marrying elements of crime fiction with a smattering of social satire. Yet, the prevailing undercurrent throughout the trilogy is a decidedly darker tone, an ominous shadow foreshadowing the tribulations of the epoch and offering a tantalizing hint at Carney’s navigation of the Reagan era in future instalments.
Despite its intermediate position in the trilogy, Crook Manifesto booms with Whitehead’s virtuosity, casting a spell over readers with his keen-eyed portrayal of a man navigating his moral boundaries amid societal upheaval, even as he pursues a better life for his family. What more can you ask for in a book?