A Portrait of Transformation in “Crook Manifesto” – Chicago Review of Books


There are few writers working today that have shown as much willingness to work across the breadth of genre and subvert its conventions as Colson Whitehead. From the unique blend of reportage and memoir in The Noble Hustle and the post-apocalyptic horror of Zone One to the speculative fiction of The Intuitionist and the linguistic wordplay of Apex Hides the Hurt, Whitehead’s flexibility combined with his trademark wit has made his varying work consistently fresh, challenging, and distinctive. But while most readers will immediately recognize him as the author of The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys—both of which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction among an impressive collection of awards—the arrival of his new novel, Crook Manifesto, makes clear that his greatest and most underrated achievement may lie with this budding crime trilogy and what it has to say about the myth of American exceptionalism.  

Divided into three separate capers, Crook Manifesto picks up in 1971—seven years after the events of Harlem Shuffle—and follows small business owner, family man, and occasional fence of stolen goods Ray Carney. While New York finds itself in a precious moment with crime skyrocketing, the city on the verge of bankruptcy, and the tensions between the NYPD and Black Liberation Army erupting into violence, Ray has finally reached stability both personally and professionally. But in his desperation to get Jackson 5 tickets for his daughter May, he finds himself reaching out to Munson, his old police contact and a deeply corrupt operator. What results in the book’s first section is a descent into the dark depths of Ray’s criminal past, as Munson takes him on a deadly drive through the city. 

Whitehead is ever the linguistic chameleon, and his work here continues to perfectly reflect the snare drum pace and effortless cool dialogue of a heist movie and the resigned attitude toward the dark and grotesque violence of a noir. But while it is often tempting as a reader to settle back into the hilarious verbal jabs and heart-racing gunfights between mobsters and hit men, Crook Manifesto is a deeply layered and complex novel at every level. Every explosion of violence—from a broken window and shuttered business to the rash of arson and the hollowed buildings left behind—tells a larger story about the brutal transformation New York went through in the 1970s. 

The phrase “setting as character” is often thrown around for fiction in which setting plays a crucial role. While that idea overall may be somewhat misguided—characters have agency to act, respond, and develop while settings can only shape, trap, or bear the marks of the character’s choices—the portrait of Harlem that Whitehead is building across this trilogy-in-progress deserves celebration for its singularity. Trilogies in literary fiction are a notable rarity, perhaps in part because we’ve been conditioned to not expect sequels in literature and perhaps because few writers not named Marilynne Robinson or Paul Auster have built enough critical and commercial clout to attempt such a long undertaking. Whatever the reason, it makes Crook Manifesto and the budding Harlem saga all the more exceptional.

Given the necessary time and page count across these two (and eventually three) novels, Whitehead is telling the intimate story of one man’s attempt to not become lost in a crooked lifestyle in a city and country that were founded on theft, exploitation, and racial violence. Harlem Shuffle culminates in the Harlem riot of 1964, which began after fifteen-year-old James Powell was murdered by police. Crook Manifesto highlights the rise of the Black Liberation Army, the utter disarray of the NYPD’s rampant corruption, and the chaos in the city that emerges. Assuming the time trajectory continues, it’s fair to assume then that Whitehead’s third installment will explore New York City in the 1980s, a time forever scarred by Reagan’s war on drugs and the inception of the broken windows theory. That’s more than enough for each individual book to cover, but when taken together, the remarkable accomplishment of Whitehead’s work comes into full view. The Harlem saga is set to become Whitehead’s great American epic, a portrait of the ever-changing evolution and dissolution of the country’s largest city and the people it leaves behind. 

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And because Whitehead is a master of genre, he understands how this deeply American tale needs to be told—as a story of cops and robbers, a mobster and heist thriller that satisfies our desire for action while striking at the heart of our country’s crooked foundation. 

Crook Manifesto
By Colson Whitehead
Doubleday Books
Published July 18, 2023

Michael Welch

Michael Welch is the Editor-In-Chief for the Chicago Review of Books. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Electric Lit, Iron Horse Literary Review, North American Review, and elsewhere. Find him at www.michaelbwelch.com and @MBWwelch.


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