Colson Whitehead returns this summer with a sequel to the spectacular 2021 literary crime novel Harlem Shuffle. Crook Manifesto (Doubleday, July) is the second chapter in the saga of furniture salesman and heister Ray Carney. The novels are part of a trilogy, and Whitehead is at work on the third installment as he speaks with PW. Crook Manifesto follows Carney in the 1970s, he explains.
As in Harlem Shuffle, luck is crucial in the lives of Crook Manifesto’s criminals. Luck has graced the author, too: “I’ve been pretty fortunate with my last couple of books,” he says. This is modesty on a majestic scale: prior to Harlem Shuffle, Whitehead’s Underground Railroad (2016) and The Nickel Boys (2019) each won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Whitehead believes that being Gen X has been important to his work. “When I was doing pieces for the Village Voice,” he says, “I adopted this Gen X tone: slackerish, disaffected, cynical. That manifests in John Henry Days [which was shortlisted for a Pulitzer in 2002]; Sag Harbor is a Gen X baby as well. And my poker book, The Noble Hustle, is about being a depressed middle-aged dude—kind of a portrait of a Gen X guy in middle age. Depression figures in writing for me, anyway. Even when it’s going well, there’s always the next day when it can get derailed. There’s no one to help you. You’re all alone.”
Literary fiction didn’t inspire Whitehead to write—at least not at first. As a kid, he says, “I was a big fan of horror and sci-fi. Stephen King and Peter Straub and Marvel Comics. By the time I was in sixth grade, I wanted to write comic books and horror novels, and when I got to college I was like, ‘Maybe I can write something that’s literature.’ ”
The literary switch flipped when Whitehead was in seventh grade and read Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” and Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal,” which became the first chapter of Ellison’s novel Invisible Man. He recalls thinking, “Here’s a weird Black guy; I’m a weirdo—maybe I can do this.”
These days, Whitehead mostly reads to fuel the books he’s working on. For Harlem Shuffle and Crook Manifesto, he read The Talented Mister Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, he tuned in to Harlem Detective novelist Chester Himes, and “most importantly,” he tells me, he studied Donald Westlake’s crime fiction, written under the pseudonym Richard Stark.
Did he ever end up “Stockholming” himself while writing these crime novels and come to believe he could pull off a heist? “Not at all,” Whitehead says, laughing. “I respect the professions of my characters, whether they’re heisters or zombie hunters. I do like to think about potential heists whenever I leave the house. Or, I’m driving and I think, that looks like a good place to dump a body. I don’t know why dumping bodies is my gesture to criminality, but there you are.”
Whitehead’s antihero Ray Carney may have descended into a life of crime, yet there is hope for him. Ray “believes he can find a better future for his family if he can outwit everyone,” Whitehead says. “The animating philosophy of the heist is hopeful: ‘If I pull this off, I can change my fate.’ But do heists ever go well in stories?”
Carney goes through some serious changes: does Whitehead believe people change in real life? Or is that something people only do in stories?
“Well, I think in general, people are pretty terrible,” he says, laughing again. “But writing this trilogy, I had to think about who Ray Carney is at 30, 40, and 50—and not only how he’s changing, but how New York City changes. He’s living by his wits and there’s no one to help him. He’s alone.”
This is, of course, the way Whitehead describes novel writing. Whatever happens to Carney in the final volume of the trilogy, it’s hard to believe his creator won’t come out on top.
Colson Whitehead will sign ARCs of Crook Manifesto at the evening author reception on Feb. 22, 5–6 p.m., in Hall 4B.
Crook Manifesto takes place in 1970s-era New York City. An earlier version of this profile was in error about the time frame.