Colson Whitehead starts laughing when he hears the first question.
Because the first question from 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 film producer Samuel Z. Two Heads” and “The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant”.
Arkoff gets the nod in The Rascal Manifesto, Whitehead’s latest Harlem novel set in the 1970s.
“I definitely grew up with B movies and TV. And in the late 70s, early 80s, when you were a young black kid, there weren’t that many black movies where you saw your reflection,” Whitehead says during a recent phone interview. “Definitely my love of pop culture is rooted in my youth, and part of it is due to incredibly terrible B-movies.”
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Three interconnected stories from Whitehead’s latest novel, The Rascal’s Manifesto, are set in arson-ridden, near-bankrupt New York City in the 1970s. They are filled with the thrill of the crime genre and are also about race, success, honor and family. The novel, which goes on sale July 18, returns to the story of furniture store owner and occasional fence owner Ray Carney, his accidental fellow forensic scientist Pepper, and a host of cops and criminals, politicians and pimps, murderers and filmmakers.
A sequel to 2021’s Harlem Shuffle, the new novel is rife with era-appropriate references, including The Jackson 5, the Black Exploitation movies, a Richard Pryor-esque comedian, Me-Decade fashion, and the 1976 Bicentennial. Whitehead catches a glimpse of the fictional Arkoff at a bar mitzvah in Queens, an acknowledgment of the B-movies that fueled the writer’s childhood imagination and helped him recreate the era in the book.
“When I was a critic, in my early 20s, I wrote a lot about black imagery, so it was great to go back and watch those films in my early 50s and see how they hold up — not very well — but also find a way to make them serve the Ray Carney story,” says Whitehead.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
C. Crime novels tend to focus on cops, crooks, and robberies. But your Harlem saga novels explore the underworld with the help of Ray Carney, a furniture salesman who moonlights as a fence—someone who buys and sells stolen goods. What motivated you to tell the story through such a character?
I think I’m always trying to come to things from the side. my first book [“The Intuitionist”] about elevator inspectors, but also talks about racing and the city. He uses this very mundane subject as a kind of back door to get into all these different ideas. My Zombie Romance [“Zone One”] about people who sort of cleaned up after the apocalypse. They may not be the first people you think of when you think of a post-apocalyptic romance. But it felt like someone had to do it, so maybe I could use them to talk about bigger issues.
I wanted to write a robbery novel, but something that hadn’t been done before. I mean I’m borrowing from conventions but also trying to make my own spin. I couldn’t think of a novel or a movie that had a fence as its main character. They figure in a lot of these stories mostly as the ones who humiliate the robbers, you know, they say, “I’ll give you 10 cents on the dollar for that million dollar necklace.” They are an important part of the process but didn’t get their due, so it felt like it was open territory as well as a lateral way to get to the crime story.
They are between the worlds, between the criminal world and the legal world, and therefore there are many opportunities to look at crime and criminal life from a different perspective.
Q. In these books, you often write about people who have to work together, whether in small business or in criminal activities. What attracts you to this?
I don’t know why, because I’ve worked for newspapers, a website, and ice cream shops, but I’ve never had much work experience. [laughs] But people with odd jobs give me weird hobbies, like zombie garbage collector, elevator inspector, and fence. These are just great opportunities for metaphors and games.
Q. I liked the attention to furniture in these books. How did you develop Carney’s view of home decor?
I didn’t know how much I love mid-century modern furniture. I think when I grew up on 60s and 70s sitcoms or The Twilight Zone, that sleek furniture is my platonic furniture, you know; this is what is in the Brady Bunch house. And so it speaks to me like my first piece of furniture.
So it kind of helps Carney stay realistic. And then, for me, it’s also a dig of my childhood and how I first encountered the world, I guess.
Q. Some consider your books to be a mixture of genre novels and fiction. Do you approach them differently or are they just books?
No, I think these books are literary and the zombie book is literary. So for me it’s just books. Some of them may belong to different categories, which we call genres, for example, detective stories, horror fiction. I think for some people historical fiction is a separate category. To me, it’s just a novel set in the past. [laughs]
When I write a horror novel or a crime novel, I think about the genre and how I welcome it, subvert it, honor it, ignoring what came before. And it feels very natural, like I’m not thinking, “I’m going to remake a crime novel!” I’m just minding my own business.
For me, they are just different stories and labels are not that important.
Q. In this era of computer-generated adventure films, it struck me how your story depends on small tactile things: envelopes, tickets, photographs, recipes.
This is definitely not a high-tech operation. I mean, I love Ocean’s 11, but they’re not the kind of guys who have a lot of money to buy electromagnetic equipment that will short-circuit the entire Las Vegas security system. These are the guys who are sweating trying to beat the clock. It’s very simple and low tech, and it was definitely an important part when I started.
Q. You talked about Carney having a split psyche, but Pepper’s character seems to have a better understanding of herself.
The pepper is more wholesome. He has no particular shame. He does what he wants and it makes sense to him. He has his own codes of conduct and cannot understand how other people live their lives differently. So, yeah, it’s not subdivided at all, and so it makes a good backdrop for Carney.
Carney has a secret life, so it’s one thing: he can’t admit to himself that he’s such a pervert, and so part of the story in the first two books is that he starts to accept these different parts of himself.
He would like to think that he is not like his father; he would not like to see himself as the poor boy he was as a child. But, of course, these elements are still within him, as are all our formative childhood influences, still within us as we get older.
Q. You write about it in Harlem Shuffle when Carney reminisces about being bullied as a child and how it still affected him as an adult.
I think this is true for people. We can see ourselves as the children we once were, deep inside. And I also think the same is true of the city, because the city is an important part of history – and of course, those disappeared areas that are still alive, still exist, despite all the progress.
In the first book, I start at the site of the future World Trade Center, Radio Row. At the end of the book, it’s a crater, and we, as modern readers, know that there will be towers again, then another crater, and another tower. Harlem is going through these various changes. Thus, all of these former remnants of the city’s self remain, even if the physical landscape has changed.
Q. Is there a particular place that you still see in your mind that is no longer there?
All. But then it’s still there because I’m still here. So maybe this movie theater is now called Whole Foods. It’s something else, but it’s still there because I’m still here. I think this is one of the magical things about the relationship between a city and its people. We protect and protect each other.
Q. It’s true. I worked at a movie theater now called Trader Joe’s.
Yes. I think because they are big spaces, they become big supermarkets or stores.
Q. One of the elements of the book is how people try – through legal and illegal means – to succeed.
I think people are trying to move forward. I mean, a successful heist is a way to transcend your origins. You kind of lead this squalid lifestyle, but if you can pull off this heist – if you plot and plan – you can change your destiny.
I don’t think I’m making a statement about class and aspiration, but it’s so much a part of New York and being just human – I don’t even think it’s American – people want to remake themselves and get away from who they were. And we do it in different ways.
Q. As a child, were you one of those children who imagined robberies and schemes?
Not before I wrote the book. But now there is something like this transfer. In general, I am more aware of my surroundings. If I’m on the highway and I’m driving, I’m like, “Oh, you could throw the body in there.” This is a good place. [laughs]
So not when I was younger, but it’s definitely become something of a habit now.
Q. Is there anything secret in this book that no one knows?
I didn’t say much about it, so it’s all a secret. But in the second part with the Blexploitation material and Richard Pryor, it was cool to just go back to the story of Richard Pryor. You know, in the late ’60s, he kind of finds his anarchic voice after being kind of a Bill Cosby look-alike, you know, really straight forward. And in the early 70s, he’s doing B-movies, and he’s about to break out of 74-75.
So capturing this moment in Richard Pryor’s life as Roscoe Pope was fun.
I have a playlist of songs and I’ve had three Richard Pryor records in a couple of years. So I listened to The Clash and then a two-minute excerpt from Richard Pryor’s story of growing up in a brothel. So I thought about him a lot, and it was great to have someone like him in the book.
Q. Are you writing the next one already?
I’m very early in the third. It’s kind of a conspiracy in the big picture. And then I have to deal with capers and circuits, and how to put it all together. I’m taking a break because this book is coming out and I’ll pick it up again in September. I’m looking forward to getting back to this.