Three ex-cons get ensnared in a treacherous scheme to revitalize Harlem.
Second-novelist Johnson (Drop, 2000) begins his likable, and often entertaining story, virtually a casual history of Harlem, as Starbucks, developers, and homebuyers encircle the neighborhood, sniffing bargain real estate and threatening to seal Harlem’s fate as “the most romanticized ghetto in the world.” Johnson’s perceptive insights point up what black culture would lose in the transition, a fate that jars protagonist Cedric Snowden from his ennui. Just sprung from a sentence for the murder of his father (it was mostly an accident), Snowden and two other former big-house residents are enlisted by Horizon Reality in a program that promises to rebuild the neighborhood by cleaning out crime and opening up housing for the middle class. The reward: in a year, Horizon will deed the ex-cons a history-laden brownstone. Snowden’s work finds him disposing of the belongings of recently deceased apartment owners to get the premises in shape for new owners. He soon sniffs a pattern in what’s going on: all the apartments housed lowlifes (thieves, pimps, drug dealers) who died in violent accidents, spiking the accidental death rate in Harlem way beyond that of the rest of the city. Piper Goines, keen reporter for the New Holland Herald, also senses something suspicious and starts asking questions. Her investigation brings the somewhat rambling narrative into focus but also sends it along a rather conventional line that ends up begging credibility. No matter. Johnson makes a welcome raconteur for a late night: he’s sharply observant and funny, even witty at times. He can also be long-winded, and some of his sentences do bump along. Still, few will complain as long as the good lines keep coming.
Fun more in the telling than in the tale.