Book Review | Of crookedness, conscience and a spoofy tour of Harlem

The Asian Age.  | Rupa Gulab

Carney is determined to beg, steal, or borrow, but none of his friends or old contacts in the criminal world can help

Crook Manifesto By Colson Whitehead. (Image: DC)

Proud furniture-store owner and former fence Ray Carney is on the straight and narrow, and he feels good. All that comes to an end, however, when his daughter May wants a ticket for a Jackson 5 performance. Carney is determined to beg, steal, or borrow, but none of his friends or old contacts in the criminal world can help. As a last resort he appeals to a bent white cop he used to give generous look-the-other-way envelopes to in the bad old days. The cop agrees, but demands more than his pound of flesh.

And voila — Carney is sucked back into the familiar Harlem underworld of the 1970s. A time when the Black Liberation Army rules, and Blaxploitation films are the rage. When African American gangsters fight each other to be lords of the underworld. When arty pyromaniacs and mercenary arsonists are high in demand to burn down old residential buildings in the name of “progress”, and so what if a few tenants are burnt toast? When crooks are the right hand men of allegedly clean politicians—oh wait, that hasn’t changed yet—anywhere in the world.

It helps considerably that Carney has inherited Pepper, his crooked father’s violent sidekick. Pepper is a law unto himself, and despite his disdain for niceties, he’s rather charming and you find yourself rooting for him. And so what if a hardcore crook like him occasionally works as a security guard too: “Half the cops in New York were thieving bitches first and cops second. City like this, it behooves you to embrace the fucking contradictions.”

All this crookedness and violence aside, we see Carney as a good guy who at least tries to be clean. We already know that he’s a loving father who jumps through flaming hoops to give his daughter what she desires. We learn that he’s a caring family man who grew his legitimate business through the proceeds of his illegitimate criminal business to give his wife Elizabeth the life she was accustomed to. Not that Elizabeth who grew up in a wealthy, educated, respectable and loving family (unlike Carney’s in every way) ever complains. Love is enough for her. Carney returns the favour by tolerating her enthusiastic campaign support for her snooty old childhood friend Alexander Oakes who is running for office. Even though Carney knows a thing or two about him.

Things hit a crescendo when one of Carney’s buildings is set on fire and the son of his tenant is seriously injured. Carney’s conscience kicks in (even though he can’t be bothered to remember the kid’s name) and he hires Pepper to find out who was responsible for this heinous act. Hell breaks loose again, of course.

Crook Manifesto lives up to its name — you enjoy it more so for its dark, trenchant wit and the colourful, sometimes spoofy tour of Harlem. There’s a very, very good chance that you will be inspired to read the complete works of two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead.

Crook Manifesto
By Colson Whitehead
Hachette India
pp. 319, Rs 799