Furniture & wedding cakes

An online book group I belong to has spent the past month discussing Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle, and I’ve been thinking of the book as a “coming of middle age” novel. The novel’s protagonist, Ray Carney, is a grown man–married with a child–when the novel begins, but he grows into middle age (and his family expands) as the story continues. Readers see Carney’s social and professional ambitions unfold over the course of the novel–his successes, shortcomings, and disappointments–as he settles into the realities of middle age.

There are two quotes about middle age that kept coming to mind as I read the novel. First is Thoreau’s remark about the difference between young and middle-aged men: “The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or, perchance, a palace or temple on the earth, and, at length, the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them.” Thoreau, who died in his forties and thus didn’t have much firsthand experience with the indignities of middle age, recognized the way that youthful idealism ripens into more mature practicality. Instead of shooting for the stars, Thoreau’s middle-aged man is firmly fixed on earth.

I also kept thinking about the quip that middle age is when you realize you’ll never read Proust. In youth, we are told (if we are lucky) that we can be anyone we want to be: the sky is the proverbial limit. But in middle age, we are far down the particular path we’ve chosen, and we’ve dug our own ruts. It’s no longer feasible to pursue the road not taken. We’ll never finish all the books on our to-be-read list, never reach the bottom of our to-do list, and never become the superhero, astronaut, or dinosaur-tamer of our childhood dreams.

In a traditional coming-of-age novel, a youthful protagonist gains wisdom and experience from a series of adventures and encounters. Said protagonist loses their childhood innocence during a crisis of faith where they question what they’ve been told or taught. Big lessons about mortality, betrayal, and disappointment are learned the hard way. By the end of a traditional coming-of-age novel, the protagonist will never be the same because they’ve learned the world is more complicated than they’d realized.

In Harlem Shuffle, Ray Carney has youthful dreams of succeeding in ways his father, a petty criminal, couldn’t…but because of his childhood as a criminal’s son, Carney was never entirely innocent. Instead, he’s an entrepreneur who runs a mostly respectable furniture store that occasionally sells used (read: stolen) goods. Carney wants to make it as a law-abiding, “straight” businessman in order to impress his respectable middle-class in-laws…but he is occasionally tempted by the crooked ways of his youth.

Ray Carney doesn’t have a turning-point crisis of faith; instead, he gradually realizes the difficulties of social climbing. Carney wants the American dream–he wants to provide his wife and family with the comfortable middle-class lifestyle he never had as a boy–but as a Black man in 1950s Harlem, he knows the path to success has never been straight. It’s hard to stay on the straight and narrow when a crooked system is stacked against you.