How Colson Whitehead’s childhood helped inspire crime novel ‘Crook Manifesto’

19 July 2023

Colson Whitehead starts laughing when he hears the first question.

Because the first question for the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Underground Railroad” and “The Nickel Boys” – and recent recipient of the National Humanities Medal – is about the films of low-budget movie producer Samuel Z. Arkoff, whose American International Pictures produced tons of successful, schlocky films in the ‘60s and ‘70s – from “Beach Party” and “Blacula” to the double-headers “The Thing With Two Heads” and “The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant.”

Arkoff gets a nod in “Crook Manifesto,” Whitehead’s latest Harlem saga novel, set in the 1970s.

“I was definitely raised on B-movies and TV. And as a young Black kid growing up in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, there weren’t a lot of Black films where you saw yourself reflected,” Whitehead says during a recent phone interview. “Definitely, my love for pop culture comes from my youth – and part of that is incredibly terrible B-movies.”

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Set in the arson-plagued, nearly bankrupt New York City of the ’70s, the three connected stories of Whitehead’s latest novel, “Crook Manifesto,” revel in the thrills of the crime genre while also exploring race, success, honor and family. The novel, which arrives in stores July 18, returns to the story of furniture store owner and sometimes fence Ray Carney, his occasional criminal colleague Pepper and an array of cops and criminals, politicians and pimps, murderers and movie makers.

A follow-up to 2021’s “Harlem Shuffle,” the new novel is stacked high with era-appropriate references that include the Jackson 5, Blaxploitation films, a Richard Pryor-like comedian, Me-Decade fashion and the 1976 Bicentennial. Whitehead slips in a glimpse of a fictional Arkoff at a Queens’ bar mitzvah, an acknowledgment of those B-movies that fueled the novelist’s imagination as a child and helped him evoke the era in the book.

“When I was a critic in my early 20s, I wrote a lot about Black imagery and so it was cool to go back and see those films in my early 50s and see how they held up – not really that well – but also to find a way of making them serve Ray Carney’s story,” says Whitehead.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. Crime novels tend to focus on cops, crooks and heists. But your Harlem saga novels explore the underworld through Ray Carney, a furniture salesman who moonlights as a fence – someone who buys and sells stolen goods. What led you to tell the story through this kind of character? 

I think I’m always trying to come at things sideways. My first book [“The Intuitionist”] is about elevator inspectors but also talks about race and the city. It uses this very mundane subject as a sort of back door to get all these different ideas in. My zombie novel [“Zone One”] is about people who were sort of cleaning up after the apocalypse. Maybe they’re not the first people you would think of when you think about a post-apocalyptic novel. But it seemed like someone has to do it so maybe I can use them to talk about larger issues. 

I wanted to write a heist novel, but something that had not been done before. I mean, I’m borrowing from conventions, but also trying to do my own spin. I couldn’t think of a novel or movie that had a fence as a protagonist. They’re in a lot of these stories basically as someone who degrades the heisters, you know, they say, “I’ll give you 10 cents on the dollar for this million-dollar necklace.” They’re an essential part of the process but didn’t get their due, so it seemed like it was open territory – and also a sideways way of getting at the crime story.

They’re in between worlds, in between the criminal world and the legal world, and so there are a lot of opportunities for looking at crime and the criminal life through a different perspective.

Q. In these books, you often write about people who have to work together, whether at a small business or in a criminal endeavor. What appeals to you about that?

I’m not sure why, because I’ve worked at newspapers, a website and ice cream stores, but I’ve never actually had a lot of job experience. [laughs] But people having odd jobs is a strange fascination with me, like zombie picker-upper and an elevator inspector and a fence. They’re just great opportunities for metaphor and for play. 

Q. I enjoyed the attention to furniture in these books. How did you develop Carney’s opinions on home furnishings?

I didn’t know how much I love mid-century modern furniture. I think growing up watching sitcoms in the ’60s and ’70s, or “The Twilight Zone,” that sleek furniture is my Platonic furniture, you know; it’s what’s in the Brady Bunch home. And so it speaks to me as, like, my first furniture.

So part of it is keeping things realistic for Carney. And then, for me, it’s also an excavation of my childhood and how I first encountered the world, I guess.

Q. Your books are viewed by some as a mix of genre novels and literary fiction. Do you approach them any differently in your mind or are they just books? 

No, I think these books are literary and the zombie book is literary. So to me, they’re just books. Some of them may fall into different categories that we recognize as genre, such as detective fiction, horror fiction. I guess, for some people, historical fiction is a category. For me, it’s just a novel set in the past. [laughs] 

When I am writing a horror novel or crime novel, I’m thinking of the genre and how I’m saluting it, subverting it, honoring it, ignoring what’s gone before. And that just seems very natural, like I’m not thinking, “I’m going to remake the crime novel!” I just sort of do my own thing. 

For me, they’re just different kinds of stories and the labels are not that important.

Q. In this current age of CG action-adventure films, it struck me how your story hinges on small tactile things: envelopes, tickets, photographs, recipes.

It’s definitely not a hi-tech operation. I mean, I love “Ocean’s 11,” but these aren’t guys with a lot of money to buy electromagnetic equipment that will short-circuit all of Las Vegas’s security apparatus. These are guys who are sweating as they try to beat the clock. It’s very simple and low-tech and that was definitely an important part when I started.

Q. You’ve talked about Carney having a compartmentalized psyche, but the character Pepper seems to have a clearer understanding of himself.

Pepper is more unified. He doesn’t have a lot of shame. He does what he wants and it makes perfect sense to him. He has his codes of behavior, and he can’t understand how other people live their lives in a different way. So, yeah, he’s not compartmentalized at all and so he makes a good foil for Carney. 

Carney has a secret life, so that’s one thing: He can’t admit to himself that he’s that crooked, and so part of the story in the first two books is him coming to accept these different parts of himself.

He would like to think he’s not like his father; he would like not to see himself as a poor boy like he was when he was little. But of course, these elements are still within him as all our childhood formative influences are still within us when we’re older.

Q. You write about that in “Harlem Shuffle” when Carney recalls being bullied as a child, and how it still affected him as an adult.

I think that’s true of people. We can see ourselves as the children we once were, deep inside. And also I think it’s also true of the city because the city is an important part of the stories – and definitely those vanished neighborhoods that still live, still exist, despite all the progress.

In the first book, I start off at the site of the future World Trade Center, Radio Row. At the end of the book, it’s a crater, and we know, as modern readers, that there’ll be towers again and then a crater again and another tower. Harlem goes through these different changes. And so, all those former vestiges of the self of the city remain even if the physical landscape has changed.

Q. Is there a particular place you still see in your mind that isn’t there anymore?

Everything. But then it’s still there because I’m still here. So maybe that movie theater is now a Whole Foods. It’s something different, but it’s still there because I’m still here. I think that’s one of the magical things about the relationship between the city and its inhabitants. We preserve and protect each other.

Q. That’s true. I worked at a movie theater that’s now a Trader Joe’s.

Yes. I think because they’re big spaces they become big supermarkets or box stores.

Q. One element of the book is how people try – through means legal and not – to succeed.

I think people are trying to get ahead. I mean, a successful heist is a way of transcending your origins. You sort of live this crummy lifestyle, but if you can pull off this heist – if you plot and plan – you can change your fate.

I’m not thinking I’m making a statement about class and striving, but it’s so much a part of New York and being just a person – I don’t even think it’s an American thing – people want to remake themselves and escape who they were. And we do it in different ways.

Q. Growing up, were you the kind of kid who would imagine heists and schemes?

Not before I wrote the book. But now there’s sort of like this carryover. Basically, I’m more aware of my surroundings. If I’m on the highway, and I’m driving, I’m like, ‘Oh, you could dump a body there. That’s a good place.’ [laughs]

So not when I was younger, but now definitely it’s a bit of a habit.

Q. Is there anything about this book, a secret, that nobody else knows?

I haven’t talked about it a lot so everything’s a secret. But the second section with the Blaxploitation stuff and Richard Pryor, it was cool just to go back to Richard Pryor’s story. You know, in the late ‘60s, he sort of finds his anarchic voice after being a sort of Bill Cosby impersonator, you know, really straightlaced. And in the early 70s, he’s doing these B movies, and he’s about to break out of ’74-’75. 

So capturing this moment in Richard Pryor’s life in the form of Roscoe Pope was fun. 

I have a playlist of songs, and I had three Richard Pryor records in there for a couple of years. And so I’d be listening to The Clash and then there’s a two-minute bit of Richard Pryor talking about growing up in a whorehouse. So I thought about him a lot, and it was great to have someone like him in the book.

Q. Are you already writing the next one?

I’m very early in the third one. It’s sort of plotted in a big-picture way. And then I’ve got to figure out the capers and the schemes and how it’s all going to come together. I’m pausing because this book’s coming out and I’ll pick it up again in September. I’m looking forward to getting back to it.

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